They Don’t Care About Us (Spike Lee, 1997)

“Tell me what has become of my rightsAm I invisible because you ignore me?Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now”

Introduction

Straight off the bat we have problem with this song. First off, we have two videos – both directed by Spike Lee – but it begs the question (which I shall try and answer) about why two and, the lesser seen video, is not seen so much. Michael Jackson sure does court controversy but its often brought upon by himself. If you write a song about injustice – people are going to have a problem with it. It happens so often whereby people get into heaps of ‘controversy’ because, to show pure and morally sound perspectives, it is neccessary to show ugly and immoral perspectives to contrast the argument with.

It is also worth noting that the ‘Prison’ version of the video I had never seen prior to this week. So, to think that I, as a pretty big fan, was not aware of a music video of Michael Jackson is pretty shocking. Either the makers did not push the video as much or I am actually not a big fan of MJ … I think its the former.

Rio De Janiero Video

Summary

This is a very run-of-the-mill video to some extent: Singer sings along, no narrative, lots of dancing, etc. But on the other side of things, it is actually quite groundbreaking. MJ constantly reiterates his view to the police on the streets – shoving his hand in their face, [it looks like] he is swearing at them and they do no respond. Clearly uninterested in his view. They don’t care about him. The percussion is different to the music in the song as rather than a very solid-beat, we have 200 drummers, drumming in time perfectly. This drumming continues after the song itself has finished and we see over a minute of flawless cultural brazilian music.

What I reckon…

This has to be one of my favourite music videos by Michael Jackson. Seriously – over ‘Bad’ and ‘Thriller’. I can appreciate how it has not got the complexity and cinematic value of other videos, but as a music video, it looks and sounds stunning. Its more the song I think – which for obvious reasons – makes any visuals look better. The best part of the song is the beat that, as we pan over hundreds of drummers, simply adds to the force that the beat is supposed to emanate.

The vivid colours and beautiful setting of the faeva in Brazil simply adds to this cultural and angry video. Apparently, there was a huge problem with filming in this location – whereby the Brazilian government were concerned about how MJ highlighting the poverty in Brazil would affect their chances of holding the Olympics. It truly is suprising that they felt like that becaue the video appears to – on one side with the song lyrics itself – highlight human injustic that not only affects Brazil but many other parts of the world, but also manages to show the beauty of Brazil. The panning shot of Christ the Redeemer at the start simply looks stunning – and the children singing and dancing simply adds to the cultural traditions of this country. We jump from the ignorance of the police -an important point – when Michael dances, to Michael dancing in the street – prompting fans to run out and hug him, not so important.

On the flip side to this, a friend of mine (shout out to Richard B) noted how the video is hardly a ‘Spike-Lee-Joint’. You don’t see credits written on signs or clear signifiers of human brutality – and this is true. But then, when you watch the second video for this song, you realise where Spike Lee’s direction becomes clear. This first video with its brilliant percussion is what we see the most and makes us want to dance and move ourselves, while the second video actually angers, frustrates and upsets you …

Prison Video

Summary

Michael is in a cell, with TV’s surrounding him, ‘broken’ into the wall. The film is interspersed with human rights violations from across the world and then mixes this up with men in jail, banging on the table – rocking the screen and room with their anger – as they punch the sky in time and bang on the tables. It truly is a work of real Art.

What I reckon …

This second video begins with a child coverng their eyes – ignoring the brutality of the world. As the music beat starts we see CCTV footage of riots, whereby police use brute force on the people. We hear children ad toddlers crying as they sit alone, covered in garbage, we see Tank man in Tianamen Square and we see footage of assasination attempts and the KKK. This is before we see MJ himself, in a cell, with the footage we have just watched surrounding him. He is in the middle of all of this violence and horror.

The lyric – which on this version of the song, you become accutely aware of – is filled with anger an aggression. Amongst the lines are the following lines: “You rapin’ me of my pride/Oh, for Gods sake” and “I’m tired of bein’ the victim of shame/ They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name” and so it goes on. (Seriously, check out the lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/michaeljackson/theydontcareaboutus.html)

This is a song about the divide in society – how people are ignored, beaten and -ultimately – not given their human rights because of their race. There was a huge uproar when the song was released with the lines used in the song “sue me, jew me” and “kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me”. These slurs or use of race as an insult is what the song is trying to highlight – Jackson isn’t ignoring the issue he is putting it out there for all to see. The song is ‘They don’t really care about us’ and through people ignoring what actually happens – rarely showing the video and censoring the lyric (which is what happened), in my opinion, it seems, people don’t want to swallow the pill. Human rights are violated in a number of ways, but we ignore it.

In the face of such abuse, how much are people expected to go through before they snap – Will me, thrill me/You can never kill me”, even though Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, years before, attempted to stop such out-and-out racism, it still exists. You notice all the moves of the prisoners are all linked in frustration, anger, and sadness and then when the – how do I put this – ‘rock-bit’ kicks in, rather than have some fan hug Michael Jacksn (as in Rio De Janiero), it shots Michael Jackson spinning while we clearly see shots behind him, and it cuts away to, shots or violence and racism, Vitenam, Civil Rights protests – am I right for thinking that its Rosa Parks in one shot? – and it really is shocking.

As the song builds up – we see hands reaching through fire for freedom – we see the guards in the prison intimidated, we see prisoners holding their hand up, in protest. The video ends as we see Jackson run through the streets of Rio de Janeiro and we move back to the other video …

It is shocking to think that this video is 14 years old and yet these things still happen. In Northern Ireland, only recently, Romanian immigrants houses were burnt down. This was in the last six months. Such a brilliant video and director, such a brilliant song and performer – and such an important issue.

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2 comments

  1. Wowser, another great music video choice (you gotta find something we disagree on, it can't be that hard…) Also one of my favourite Michael Jackson songs & videos although I hadn't seen the prison one. Do have a couple of points to add regarding Rio;

    Firstly he does look very white and very thin. So it's amazing his movements are still so powerful and sharp. This incredible anger (at the world and his own situation) is written all over the History album and it's a shame people were to busy laughing/ushering their children away/toward him to take notice. The combined edge of the lyrics and the visuals is so potent it makes the fact that the first released rehearsal material was of this song extra hard to take. I had been concerned that This Is It was going to be a 60 rendition of Gone Too Soon from a stool in the middle of a stage full of fireworks. However the fact that he was preparing a lesser known and more aggressive song with the sharp dancing and mixing is tough to take.

    On a similar note, while Spike Lee is not stamped over the video the fact that he is directing it has some kind of importance. A filmmaker who has never been afraid to speak his mind or attack taboos the fact that he is willing to make such a tough video after the mess Jackson became in the early ninties is a potential demonstration of the commitment of Michael. This is not some half arsed charitable effort to drum up public sympathy (although it sounds now like the Heal the World foundation has become a white elephant) for a naive performer. This is a project undertaken to expose injustice with a cracking drum beat, painting poverty and vibrancy in 7 forceful minutes.

    P to the S. My understanding of the 'kike me' line is that it pissed off Steven Spielberg which is one of the reasons they fell out. Or Michael was pissed off that Spielberg didn't cast him as Peter Pan in Hook and out a voodoo curse on him.

  2. Second video not so good. Seems a bit cartoonish and cliche movie prison. Spinning round and round doesn't have the same effect as running through the streets of a favela… Still great use of archive footage and very handy to have the lyrics on screen, now I can sing along. Also does show exactly how angry he is. Answer, very.

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