Michael Jackson's Bad, another look at a mythical video
"Bad": Edmund Perry, African Americans and the educational issue
The video script for Bad, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by novelist Richard Price, is inspired by the real-life story of Edmund Perry, via Robert Sam Anson's book, Best Intentions. Scorsese asked the author of The Color of Money and Clockers to write a script in the spirit of a drama. Of the three stories he proposed, the synopsis about social pressures won out, telling the tragic end of a Harlem youth studying at Phillips Exeter Academy and killed two years earlier by an undercover cop he tried to mug for money.
The video romanticizes things a bit, of course: the loyalty and fidelity of Michael Jackson, a returning student, is tested by his former gang, who now doubt his integrity since he attends a racially mixed high school. It also romanticizes the dark final reality, as Michael Jackson prefers a message of peace and mutual understanding to death, which, as is often the case in his work, is achieved through dance and music. Indeed, the video's script provides narrative direction to a vague text that plays on ambiguity through double-speak and reversals of meaning, typical of jive-talk [a form of Harlem-Jive developed in the jazz world during the 1940s and a cousin of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a language that exploits ambiguity of meaning by making the actual meaning of words slippery and uncertain through conscious stylization that goes so far as to be translated into opposites]. It marks the spirits, at the time, above all by the urban image of androgynous hooligan with the clear complexion deployed by Michael Jackson: "That can appear arrogant, but this album, it is a way of saying I am cool, good, strong, not a criminal", he will say.
As one must always venture into political interpretations, which make Michael Jackson, depending on the commentators, sometimes a nationalist agent, sometimes an idealist cut off from the world and living in the cliché, this "Who's Bad?" question has been interpreted by Davitt Sigerson as a black supremacist statement: "When Jackson declares that the whole world must 'answer now', he is not boasting, but making a statement about his extraordinary starhood. Rather, he scorns the self-coronation of the lesser royals of funk and invites his fickle audience to reject him, if they dare. Not since Godfather Brown's "is that good, yeah?" has there been a more rhetorical question asked in funk." As for the social content of the video, this time it was seen as a series of clichés and exaggerated conceptions of urban ghetto life that would come out of one of the smoked windows of Michael Jackson's limousine. However, other analysts at the time, such as Armond White, were able to capture its effectiveness in putting the Perry affair into perspective and highlighting Michael Jackson's social conscience: "The film is the most ideologically complex of the year. Scorsese brings his professional skills to Jackson's old-fashioned (West Side Story-inspired) gangland fantasy. Daryl is an attempt at solidarity on Jackson's part. He brings Edmund Perry's story to the world by identifying with it. He sees himself facing the same choices as other young black men, but he has the ability (the chance) to make his decision through art. It's a very serious but stylized musical film.
For Michael Jackson, it seems to be the ghetto culture that caused Perry's downfall. The 17-year-old had, according to witnesses, assaulted an undercover police officer with his brother. He had graduated from one of America's most prestigious prep schools, The Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and was enrolled to continue his education at Stanford. The revelation of this fact led to intense media coverage that was generally unfavorable to the police: for the front page of the New York Post, at the time, "Honor student, 17, killed by policemen on West side"; for the Village Voice newspaper, Perry had been killed because he was "too black for his own good"; finally, for the New York Times, "The death of Edmund Perry raises painfully troubling questions".
However, Edmund Perry's final year of school was marked by a decline in his grades and an increasingly hostile attitude. He participated in clubs requiring sexual initiation and had begun to use drugs, albeit moderately. He gave a tough, angry speech to a large student body on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination, a speech written by an Exeter alumnus, using Black Power rhetoric to make a forceful statement of community independence. Less than a month after Edmund Perry's death, a police investigation had led to the acquittal of the police officer and the indictment of Jonah Perry, Edmund's brother. The Perry family was represented by attorneys C. Vernon Mason, Alton Maddox and Reverend Al Sharpton, all three forming a famous triumvir, in the late 1980s following the Tawanna Brawley kidnapping and Yusef Hawkins murder cases.
Michael Jackson's awareness of the impact of education and instruction is therefore at the heart of Bad and this issue has heavy community and social implications: already in 1855, James McCune Smith wrote "The colored man must do unachievable things before he can be given a place in society [...] He must speak like a [Frederick] Douglass, write like a [Alexandre] Dumas, and sing like the Black Swan [Elizabeth Greenfield] before he can be recognized as a human being. Now, as the twentieth century progressed, despite the development of the means of communication, access to the image and its shaping by African-Americans in an attempt to reverse the caricatured trend initiated by blackface, despite even the successes and decompartmentalizations operated by artists or big names having acquired visibility and media aura, there remains a need or an imposed necessity not to disappoint, and to set high goals of honorability. And this imperative need is found in the motivations of the Jackson family and its children.
It seems, indeed, indisputable that Michael Jackson - by his poor and working-class origins and his slave ancestry (black as well as Indian) - deliberately did everything possible to sublimate this state of affairs in order to realize the mythical American dream, while at the same time projecting the historical and contemporary problems of globalization, miscegenation and his condition as an African-American. He seems to draw his strength from this heavy past, a source of overcoming: "Slavery was a terrible thing, but when the Blacks of America finally got out of this crushing system, they were stronger. They knew what it was like to have your mind paralyzed by people controlling your life. They would not allow that to happen again. I admire that strength. Those who have it are willing to give their blood and soul to defend what they believe in.
Having lived in an environment that valued success and placed a premium on education for children, he was immersed in the need for improvement through education, faith in self and God, and the development of personal culture. These conditions have influenced a locus of control that, in societies that value obedience and conformity, is generally external, with an emphasis on the values of respect and authority. And this, all the more so within a community where the construction of identity and the quest for recognition are also strongly linked to the gaze of the other.
From a historical and sociological perspective, African American access to the middle classes is as much, if not more, an ideological affair as it is an economic one, since the symbolic criteria of education and respectability are, in this context, far more important in determining the middle classes than more objective elements such as occupation or income. Thus, education is an important element in the cross-cultural approach, and the personality of Michael Jackson's tutor, Rose Fine, has had a strong impact in this sense. Education is seen as an essential means of gaining social equality and real integration into American society. This explains her numerous involvements in educational and cultural programs for underprivileged children (often, but not exclusively, African-American), schools and local libraries, as well as students and universities.
On the other hand, Michael Jackson was aware that despite desegregation in schools, high schools remained predominantly white. These schools allowed young African Americans to immerse themselves in this dominant culture and to give themselves the means to succeed, even if the exchanges remained very unequal, especially from the point of view of young blacks: When the latter attended the same schools as whites, the cultural distinction shifted and was established between the field of instruction, common to all, and that of education received in the family setting (exhibitions, concerts, books), depending on the financial means of each one and thus giving rise to inequalities, frustrations, but also rejections. In addition, young African-Americans who had access to education and who were immersed in the dominant culture sometimes appeared, in the eyes of the most nationalistic of their peers, as traitors who had become culturally "incompetent" and had abandoned their identity. One of the musicians in the Black Rock Coalition explained how, as an only child with access to classical music lessons, concerts and museums, thanks to her mother, she found herself considered a "white girl" or a "freak" by other members of her community.
It is this whole issue that is at the heart of Bad's video narrative, through a retelling of the Perry case and a character that Michael Jackson appropriates: "This kid who went to school upstate [New York], in the country, whatever, who is from the ghetto and he tried to make something of his life and he would leave all his friends behind and when he came back, on spring break or whatever, thanks giving break, his friends became so envious, jealous of him they killed him. But in the film, I don't die of course. So it was a true story that was...we had taken from Time or Newsweek magazine, and he's a black kid like me and...it's a sad story".
Between the extreme points of view of Edmund Perry's nationalism, or of the policeman's armed response, the question of the ghetto and its exit, via education, arises, as Michael Jackson conceives it. An education in high schools, synonymous with social mixing, westernization and betrayal for the children locked up in the gangs. This question of the oréo, Michael Jackson embodies it, consciously or not, in the clip: the Daryl who returns to his ghetto and tries to go back to a gang that tests him, is still dark of skin. Even though these scenes are filmed in black and white, inscribing them in a bygone past, his complexion is visibly more natural than that of the lighter Daryl who rebels and is undoubtedly a metaphor for the education received by this new oreo, who has returned from high school with a now mixed culture, incessantly questioning, with double-meaning words: who's good/bad?
From the point of view of double-consciousness, these educational issues show how, on the one hand, blackness has limited the full acceptance of blacks by whites, in settings where integration has not eliminated racialization. On the other hand, they show how some blacks have felt their integration into white culture as a challenge to that blackness.
The short film ends with a Ring Shout that pits the two gangs against each other and pits Michael Jackson against young Wisley Snipes in a gang confrontation. The Ring Shout is one of the few preserved interpretive strategies within a cultural memory handed down from Africa. It is an ecstatic and transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshippers move in a circle, dancing from one foot to the other and stamping with their feet and hands. Despite its name, the shout is not essential to the ritual. The Ring Shout was practiced in some African American churches in the 20th century and continues among the Gullah people of the Sea Islands. In this scene where the two clans are braving each other, Michael Jackson sings this intimidating song made up of a series of melodic-rhythmic phrases that he actually shouts, not only to express strength, but also as if he wanted to evoke, through a vocal cliché, the name of the ritual he is performing. Each phrase is repeated in imitation, in a responsorial dynamic, while the final sequence is resolved by the abdication of the opposing camp. As in other titles and videos, Michael Jackson wins his case through the action of music, and here, in particular, through a prayer song of African origin, a choice that has once again earned him the accusation of being a soft essentialist utopian. It remains however in coherence with the message initiated by the album Triumph and sealed on the back cover and aims to ward off the fate of Edmund Perry by offering him a second chance
Finally, it should be noted that, in addition to the video for Bad, the death of Edmund Perry was also one of the many sources of inspiration for Spike Lee's film Do The Right Thing (1989), about racial tensions in New York. But the strength of this short film lies in its ability to illustrate, with a timeless style, a theme that is unfortunately still relevant today.