top of page

One decade later, They (still) really don't care about them, Michael!

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

The news seems to fall from the moon concerning the precarious situation of a good part of Brazil and some districts of Rio, behind the scenes of the World Cup that opens tonight... Some reminders though.

It was in the mid-1990s that Michael Jackson decided to shoot the short film of "They Don't Care About Us" in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Salvador de Bahia, under the direction of Spike Lee.

This filming was controversial (in addition to the scandal caused by the negative interpretation of the lyrics of the song itself) and led to attempts to ban it by the Brazilian state, which was then a candidate to host the 2004 Olympic Games.

Indeed, the leaders feared (but it was the goal), that the images turned and showing precisely the reverse side of the scenery, the favelas and the poverty, can damage the image of Brazil and its chances to welcome the Games.

But what better example could Michael Jackson have found, in such a context, than to put the poor in the spotlight, and to denounce the failure of the government's policies - all without ever, as Michael's strategist is wont to do, getting lost in speeches and moral lessons.

So something had to be done... Michael Jackson was accused of having exploited the poor indigenous people and even, why not, paid the cartels to have the right to access the site and shoot his film freely.

However, all this did not prevent the Secretary of State for Industry, Commerce and Tourism, Ronaldo Cezar Coelho, from demanding to receive (dirty?) rights on the production, under the pretext of not understanding why he should facilitate a filming with necessarily negative repercussions...

However, the first ruling that banned the filming was cancelled, and if the officials were furious about this provocative artistic approach, the local public was delighted to welcome the artist and to come out of the shadows. 1500 police officers and 50 local residents, dressed as security guards, cordoned off the Dona Marta slum.

Two notorious figures are to be mentioned here.

One is Spike Lee, seduced by the sharpness of the song, by its "protest-song" character which fits with his rather radical and polemical cinematographic activism and which is symbolically carried by the name of his production "40 acres and a mule" (I come back to it largely in my thesis).

It may even seem surprising (am I naive? noooo.....) to see Lee, a notorious supporter of African-American cultural protectionism, agree to collaborate with an artist "corrupted by white pop" such as Michael Jackson, when we know him to be capable of affirming, as a black American: "It's terrible to see that the more we advance as a people, the more our music is diluted. What is the solution?"

In short.

Let's remember that in the context of HIStory and this song, nearly two years after the first accusations, Michael Jackson's image has been much reshaped and politically recuperated (including by people who were spitting in his face 10 years before... but we knew that post-mortem too, eh... in both directions...), in order to give it a more incisive, virile and politicized black nationalist touch, as a riposte to a situation that was already deteriorating, especially within the label. It is here that, to simplify and protect himself, Michael Jackson preferred to include under the general term of attacks and attempts of destabilization globally "racist", what is, in fact, more complex and much less "paranoid" (as one tried from then on and until the end to pass it) than that.

In short again.

The other figure is the group Olodum, which has, as a result, increased its notoriety, being highlighted thanks to the clip, in 140 countries around the world.

This organization aims to combat racism and help cultivate pride and identity in the region's African-Brazilian communities, while also providing a platform for civil rights advocacy on behalf of marginalized groups. Her presence in the video strategically reinforces the notions of outright defamation, racial inequality, and socioeconomic exclusion carried by the song.

Olodum is visually supported by Michael's integration and interaction with the group, but also with the group's mission as he takes on the dress code of its members, wearing the various Peace and Love t-shirts himself.

This demonstration of solidarity is reciprocated through the act of collective performance - Olodum's musicians contributing not only musical layers to the song but also vocals added to the studio recording, and Michael Jackson contributing their choreographic language and dance steps.

Finally, let us note that the song TDCAU plays, like many others and in its great part, on the celebration of a certain musical subjectivity maintained by Michael Jackson with, notably, a vocal expression faithful to his traditional treatment of pitch, tone and temperament that clearly makes the recording, once again, a self-oriented representation of his artistic and charismatic personality.

But the video, for its part, and again like other Michael videos, merges into an ingenious, intertextual narrative that carries a possible, open-ended interpretation of the song and shows, once again (this is one of Michael's recurring messages) the heightened strength of collective action over individual action - a consideration illustrated particularly at the end of the video, when Michael leads the collective of young dancers in steps forward, suggesting and symbolizing the power of the dance group as a unit of strength among members of a marginalized diaspora.


bottom of page