Tag Archives: Theory Toolbox

Intro to Cultural Studies: Analysis of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”

Application of rubric from The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences (2011, Nealon & Giroux,)and The Five Analytical Moves, from Writing Analytically (2011, Rosenwasser.)

Ten observation-points and their associative significance as read by JZ:

  • Opening scene: Point of view (POV hereafter) of flying through a night sky above a cloud-line. The full moon is seen in the distance. Percussion and guitar rhythm is heard in the distance. Title “BLACK OR WHITE” seen in white, contrasting against a dark background yet matching the brightness of the full moon. The volume of the music slowly increases.
  • Varying shades of gray interplay between the contrast of concentrations of white and black. (Black sky, white moon; clouds, and haze of light-diffusion between them.)
  • POV pans downward and abruptly plunges through the cloud-line to reveal a lit cityscape below. POV rushes through winding zooms in a neighborhood ‘s streets to focus first upon the outside-in view of a house’s living room, then abruptly upward, revealing a glimpse of an apparently Caucasian (“white” in common vernacular) child playing air-guitar to the music heard at point 1; the volume has again slowly increased.
  • After scolding-by-father scene, the child, who exhibits features and size consistent with an age of approximately 8-11 years of age, rolls out massive, concert-size speakers into the living-room. The father does not behave as if he objects or even sees the child’s labor. The speakers are black with red trim.
  • The child picks up a guitar, dons sunglasses and a single, black glove.
  • Banishing of the father: the child blasts father out of house with volume of amplifier set to “Are you nuts!?!” sending him up and into the sky. The father is seen flying past the previous Moon and clouds scene. The father ends up landing, still in his easy-chair, in a day-lit savannah-like outdoor setting (lions, scrub-brush, sand, hunters.) Darker-skinned hunters, (relative to father, are seen stalking up towards the lions.
  • Further overt recurrences of the colors black and white: “black” and “white” babies, Michael Jackson’s (MJ’s) outfit is starkly black and white, MJ reads a black and white newspaper,
  • The child from points 4-6 reappears with other children, all dressed in Eighties rapper & pop tropes’ vestments. His outfit is predominantly red and black.
  • MJ ends the global dances theme with him singing and dancing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
  • The shot pans away and out to reveal exaggerated models of other world monuments such as the Parthenon, Sphinx, Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, and a Russian-style spire palace all arranged around and behind the Statue of Liberty.


Points 1, 6, and 10 struck me as the most interesting and revealing – the opening scene, the banishing of the father, and the closing scene, respectively.

The stark contrast between the light of the Moon and title-fonts, and the yawning blackness of the night sky both seemed to stand out on their own and also set the stage for the rest of the video’s thematic dichotomous interplays. Right away, a primal, universal scene of the night sky and the Moon is both recognizable by most of Humanity and also reminiscent of the “spooky,” inhuman aura of the video “Thriller.” In a single stroke it subliminally unifies the attention in a field of viewer-commonality that is rooted in ancient history and in entertainment history. The clouds separate the flying POV from the hustle and bustle of earthly life until there is an abrupt flight downward. After introducing the child and father conflict, the father is banished from the house in a theme-filled unfolding: the child prepares to take vengeance for his interruptive scolding by donning the symbols of his idol – sunglasses and a single, black glove, thus linking him to the image and mode of MJ. He also picks up a rock guitar which underscores the unification theme (pop with rock.) The glove is black and worn by a white child, whereas MJ’s is usually white and he is black; there is still a dichotomous presentation of black and white colors, but there is unity in form and identity (“glove”) which seems to be a manifestation of the themes throughout the video by other flashes of dichotomies being reconciled in a linked unity yet distinct in style. This play between apparent opposites – which are really just relative points in a continuum of contingent properties – is further illustrated as the white father is shot through the night sky from point 1, to land in a day-lit savannah populated by dark-skinned hunters; from settled civilization, to the Bush; from night, to day; from surrounded by familiar, same-colored family, to being in proximity to unfamiliar, differently-colored strangers. The act is a gesture of musical magic, a transformation of the oppressive father-trope force. Through a radical act of existential defiance, the MJ “force” as incarnate through the child exposes the old guard to the extremes of existence to shake him out of the status quo. Through further scenes containing yet more themes of dichotomous interplay and unity through diversity, the video pans away near the end as MJ sings a welcoming repetition (with an emphasis on “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”) and the Statue is centered among the listed monuments. This grouping of monuments further emphasizes the unifying, global nature of his intention, but the vision is both crude, naïve, and unimaginative when compounded with the blatant portrayal of cultural tropes. Still, it must be admitted that this very crudeness could have been intentional, perhaps as a subtle nuance that admits of MJ’s own homunculus of fame which blurred his essential humanity.