The timing couldn’t have been worse. Just as the social media campaign #OscarsSoWhite forced Hollywood to acknowledge its white supremacy, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instituting sweeping rules changes in order to diversify its majority-white membership, the news broke that Joseph Fiennes would be playing Michael Jackson in the road dramedy Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon. Joseph Fiennes is white.
Black Twitter shook its collective head, marveling at Tinseltown’s unbearable whiteness of being. Yes, Jackson suffered from vitiligo, a chronic skin condition that causes parts of the skin to lose their pigment. In order to cover up the blotches, Jackson allegedly applied copious amounts of makeup to mask the disease. But Jackson never wanted to be played by a white person. In an infamous 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey at Neverland Ranch, she asked him about tabloid rumors that he’d wanted a white boy to portray him in a Pepsi commercial.
“Why would I want a white child to play me?” asked Jackson. “I’m a black American. I’m a black American. I’m proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. That’s like you [Oprah] wanting an oriental person to play you as a child. Does that make sense? Please people stop believing these horrifying stories.”
On Feb. 5, Showtime will premiere the documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. Directed by Spike Lee, the film chronicles Jackson’s rise from child prodigy in The Jackson 5 to breaking out as a solo artist with the Quincy Jones-produced Off the Wall. Along the way, it tackles his Oscar-nominated song “Ben,” days partying—or rather, quietly observing—at Studio 54, and the groundbreaking movie-musical The Wiz. According to Lee, who sat down with me at the Sundance Film Festival where Off the Wall debuted, the film seeks to capture how Jackson evolved into a music icon.
“To me, the most important thing that we tried to hammer home was Michael’s work ethic,” Lee told The Daily Beast. “He was a perfectionist. He worked hard at what he did. He practiced, studied, and worked at it.”
“It gets overlooked,” he continued. “Another thing that one should not overlook is that every year a new generation is discovering Michael Jackson, and their introduction to Michael Jackson might be from all the other stuff that was happening, not his music. It shouldn’t be that way. We made a conscious decision with these two films we’ve done to not deal with the other stuff and just focus on the music.”
That other film was Bad 25, and like Off the Wall, it was made in conjunction with Jackson’s record label, Sony, as well as his estate. Early reviews have criticized the film for being sanitized, devoid of the Jackson 5’s strip club performances, his father Joe’s alleged verbal and physical abuse—including reports he pressured his youngest son to sleep with prostitutes (Jackson never did), his mother’s rigid-religious parenting as a devout Jehovah’s Witness, or the numerous child sexual abuse allegations levied against Jackson (though those came after Off the Wall).
“That was not my choice,” Lee said of avoiding the dirt. “That was determined by the record company, the Michael Jackson estate, and the fans. That’s how they arrived at that decision.”
“They just have a viewpoint of how they want it to be, and that’s their right,” he added. “And going in, I knew I didn’t want to deal with that stuff. It’s just about the music.”
But isn’t the abuse he suffered reflected in the music? I asked Lee. There’s a sense of heartbreak and longing in a lot of his songs, including ballads like “Ben,” which I’d always interpreted as being about a guy.
“You can interpret that any way you want to,” replied Lee. “That’s your interpretation of him singing ‘Ben?’ It’s a song about a rat!”
Lee’s always felt a strong connection to Jackson’s music, ever since he first heard him in The Jackson 5. “I was born in ’57, he was born in ’58, and Prince was born in ’58,” said Lee, smiling. “I wasn’t performing, but we were young black boys in America.”
The two first met when Jackson was being feted at a United Negro College Fund dinner in 1988. It was around that time that Jackson’s skin color began to change (vitiligo), and before the child sexual abuse allegations began in 1993. Lee has very strong feelings about the tabloid coverage of Jackson, and how it’s affected his legacy.
“The legacy has been hijacked,” said Lee. “The narrative has been hijacked. So things like Bad 25 and Off the Wall are going to take it back. I’m happy I’ve been given the opportunity by Sony, Epic, and the Jackson Estate to combat that. The manifesto from the get-go has been: focus on the music, his artistry, his genius. That’s the bottom line.”
With two MJ documentaries in the can, Lee hopes to finish a third to complete his King of Pop trilogy.
“If I could do Thriller that would be a trilogy, and I’m good,” said Lee. “If things work out, I would like to do Thriller. Michael did three great collaborations with the master Quincy Jones: Off the Wall, Bad, and Thriller. I’ve done two of the three. Also, that would be a great DVD package! Who isn’t going to buy that?”
Our talk eventually turned to the transformative power of Black Twitter, and its ability to give a voice to the disenfranchised, and promote social justice—from Black Lives Matter to #OscarsSoWhite.
“Thank you, April!” Lee screamed into my tape recorder, giving a shout-out to #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign.
“You know, tools can be used for good, or bad,” continued Lee. “If somebody gets murdered, and it wasn’t picked up by the press, you wouldn’t hear about it. Sandra Bland, I heard about it first on social media before the press. It lets us know what’s really going on. It’s powerful and very, very necessary.”