Inner Michael » Part 7 of 8 Black or White: Short Film Panther Dance

Part 7 of 8 Black or White: Short Film Panther Dance

We have looked at the Panther through the eyes of the shaman and the historian. Both perspectives are important in understanding exactly what Michael has done in this seminal work. The shaman merges with a power animal and dances the animal in his bones and we have learned that Back or White has an important historical context. The Black Panthers are, in the history books, treated as a domestic terrorist group and not looked upon favorably in the cultural lexicon. They were a militant group but they actually accomplished a great deal of good in some neighborhoods where they tried to clean up drugs and crime. There are those who believe that in an effort to sabotage and disband the organization, the CIA and other organizations introduced illegal hard drugs into their neighborhoods.

It would not have been wise to vocally and openly support them or the movement even some twenty years after their demise. But many African Americans are angry about the blatant lawlessness and overt racism that brought the Black Panthers to an end. And since African Americans were an oppressed and forgotten people, and the government was indifferent to much of their suffering, that anger had nowhere to go so it became permanent internal rage held as resentment.

What better way to pay homage to the struggles of African Americans  and honor a movement for freedom and equality than to show sympathy for its history by reminding and speaking about it but in code? When Black or White was released, there was still a great deal of overt racism that impacted Black Americans. Political correctness had not yet found a home in American culture. The Black or White video can be decoded on many levels for there are layers and layers to the artistry of what may be Michael Jackson’s most significant activist work or at least his most political or culturally critical work. What else can be found in the archetypal and shamanic images of Black or White?

As the first part of the Black or White music video ends, Landis says “cut” after the morphing sequence and as everybody is preoccupied on set, the camera pans right to bring a large black cat into view. The cat is a Panther. In a studio full of people no one seems to notice that there is a fierce wild animal loose  in their midst and they go about their business unaware of the danger. How very metaphorical of Michael; the panther lurks and no one recognizes him or the danger! As the panther moves toward the exit, he pauses to growl displeasure at a statue of George Washington, an historical figure of great prominence in America.

George Washington kept Negro slaves on his plantation and he is reputed to have had a child by one of his female slaves. As President he was sworn to uphold the laws of the country, the Constitution and the Spirit of America as well, which is unwritten and much less defined. The phrase “All men are created equal with certain inalienable rights endowed by their creator” appeared in the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution originally did not mention slavery but referred to “other persons” yet a slave was considered only three fifths of a person. “Slavery” as an institution was mentioned, however, later in the Thirteenth Amendment.

Originally the thirteenth amendment was added to ensure the continuation of slavery but its radification was preempted by the start of the civil war. Near the end of the war and only after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was in effect for about a year, the Thirteenth Amendment was changed to abolish, not preserve, slavery.

During his lifetime George Washington struggled with the concept of slavery. While he owned slaves like every other landowner of his time, there was a dissonance of conscience and he placed a clause in his will to free all his slaves upon the death of his wife should he die before her. He kept slave families together and didn’t sell off individual slaves, as that common practice would split up families. Recognizing a slave as “family” is a step toward humanizing rather than dehumanizing them. He held views that appear to be different than his contemporaries. Certainly George Washington nuanced the immorality of slavery but he did nothing to change it because it likely would have meant political suicide for him. He placed politics over morality in addressing the issue of slavery. The morality and the open challenge to slavery would come later with President Lincoln.

On the set of Black or White we notice that as the panther is leaving the room, a man walks by with a ladder and then the panther walks in front of another ladder.  The fact that the ladder keeps reappearing in this video caught my eye. Is that yet another reminder about climbing or a climb? The ladder also has significant allegorical and mystical meanings. The frequent reference to ladders in Michael’s video made me think specifically of Jacob’s Ladder and William Blake’s painting of it which hangs in my home. This particular ladder by Blake is a spiral, which is an ancient shamanic symbol that appears in every indigenous culture and speaks of ascension while mimicking the human DNA spiral. Some have compared Jacob’s ladder also to the Chakras and the path to ascension as a rising of Kundalini and the awakening of the human through the portals called chakras.

The early Christian Origen explains that there are two ladders in the life of a Christian: the ascension ladder of virtue by which a devotee climbs via his acts on Earth and another ladder climbed after death that constitutes ascension of the soul.  While it may not be possible to know what Michael was thinking by incorporating so many ladders, their appearance is not likely a coincidence. Michael would have known the mystical meaning of the ladder because of the unfolding nature of how studies of mysticism and metaphysics progress in an individual made curious of them; but when he first knew we cannot be certain. It seems feasible that abolishing slavery was in actuality, a step higher toward virtue and morality in the evolution of humankind as a whole, as a species.

We encounter yet another reference to stairs next in the video—a descending down the staircase into an alley where the black feline morphs into Michael. When one reveals his animal nature is that a descending step for the human? A step backward, or perhaps downward on the evolutionary path?

Michael walks through the darkness until there is an instant spotlight upon him and he looks us right in the eye with the help of the camera and he launches into some classic Jackson moves including the famous fingering the hat as we hear him roar. The spotlight unexpectedly appears and is thrust upon him. He is a man-imal who finds himself suddenly bathed in the spotlight. Does this refer to his life mission? He looks directly into our eyes twice in this sequence and we are asked to look directly into his. The soul is revealed through the eyes. Is it a Shakti message? The roar also represents an opening of the fifth chakra or the throat and gives voice to the one experiencing the opening.

Michael’s roaring in Black or White is a metaphor for giving voice to the inequality of racism and the stereotypes associated with blacks.  The roar always reminds me of Helen Reddy’s classic song: I am Woman Hear Me Roar of 1973 that is a feminist anthem. The whole Black or White short film says to me “I am Michael, hear me roar.” And the very next thing that happens is an alley cat jumps from a garbage can making a lot of noisy clatter but only a meek meow—by contrast Michael is a wild cat. Is that to say “I am a poor child come from an urban alley but listen to me roar now?” Or maybe “Make no mistake, I am no pussycat.” The interesting thing here is that Michael is not startled at all by the alley cat and he is certainly no small docile kitty. The cat jumping from garbage hardly phases him as he glances once and walks away.

He emerges onto an urban street where strong winds begin to blow garbage at him. That could seem both metaphor and prophetic, certainly allegorical as is much of his work—as he stands steadfast those winds of fate or public opinion or destiny—that blow garbage into his path and onto him. And once again he looks up straight into the camera and looks us in the eye. And instead of flinching or crouching or reverting to his animal form, he begins to dance. Is it a message about what he will embody as he accepts his fate—that he chooses to dance the dance?

But his first dance is not just any dance, it is a tap dance. Tap dance has a significant historical context especially for African Americans. Not considered fully human or only partly (3/5) a real human being, the negro was considered valuable only for grunt work, servitude or amusement as in the inherent ridicule of tap dance which was extremely demeaning to the Negro in society. It originated as “blackface comedy” mostly on Vaudeville and was invented specifically to ridicule slaves. Whites would paint their faces black and mock slaves in dancing that eventually evolved into tap dance. While tap is a combination of many ethnic forms of dance and rhythm, it was specifically invented to mimic black slaves, make fun of them and demean them. Tap dance evolved and became an art form in the hands of the black culture and it defined people like Sammy Davis Jr., but its origins are racist and sinister.

Michael “dances for us” and splashes water – throws water on the fun perhaps? Is he being a wet blanket? Water has great metaphorical, alchemical, allegorical and archetypal meanings which all reference the deep or depth of the human psyche. The water was also a prominent feature in Gene Kelly’s classic dance in his movie classic Singing in the Rain. Michael lets out another panther growl in commentary and protest about being expected to do the dance or follow the rules of tap dance.

The next thing we know, Michael makes a radical move and does his own form of dance that involves autoerotica and unmistakably in erogenous zones. It’s gritty and shocking and radical and surprised many people but it is classic Michael Jackson first getting our attention and then providing the intrigue through mystery. We can’t quite believe our eyes (and apparently Director John Landis couldn’t either) as Michael tells us in no uncertain terms that he is male, he is sexual and he is angry. Can there be any doubt about the activism and the meaning in what he does here as he steps out of the water after throwing water on our classist and racial theories, standards and expectations?

He then gives us a little reprieve by staging a light reference and homage to Gene Kelly and his Singing in the Rain where the character has become a singing star and carries an umbrella. He takes us completely out of context and knocks us off balance. The street light and set is straight out of the 1958 classic movie which parallels Michael’s life in many ways. Michael was a Gene Kelly fan and often incorporated scenes from other artwork in his films. He dances around the streetlight and kicks what appears to be a beer bottle—a mini message about his disdain of alcohol, perhaps? He is known for incorporating cautions to youth in his films as well. Michael didn’t use alcohol then and didn’t like drinking and going to clubs.

The next segment of Black or White has come under fire for its overt violence and sexual overtones. The setting is obviously a poor part of an urban city and an abandoned car.  Cars abandoned where they stop running is emblematic of the ghetto that is often littered with old cars like an elephant or other graveyard littered with bones. The original film had none of the racial epithets that were later added to soften the violence or give it context for the angry and aggressive nature of Michael’s actions and dance. Since he couldn’t have explained it any other way, the epithets added to the artistry and explained Michael’s embodiment of anger but was it the real reason for depicting that kind of anger? In that particular setting?

In the context of Michael’s life, he was thought to be fairly benign and without controversy while Prince, another musical genius and his nemesis, was the classic “bad boy” persona. And in order to deliver his message about racism, stereotypes and how we are all one human race, he first needed to get “their” attention. He got the world’s attention because he understood how to do that—and how to do something controversial to keep people talking and tongues wagging. He understood the power of scandalous material and drama and used it to his advantage and to make bold statements. And it was effective until it got out of hand a couple of years later.

The world had never seen a violent or angry Michael who was the darling of the Jackson Five and Motown, and it was stunned. There was a great deal of criticism about the violence without a context so he had racial epithets added later to the windows and glass to justify the rage and vandalism prominent in the video. Many people missed the point or missed the message but he made it clearer for most by adding the words on the car windows and glass.

The Los Angeles area was especially racially charged because of the Rodney King incident earlier in the year and the streets erupted into violence because of people’s attitudes toward blacks and black art. Michael was claiming legitimacy but many did not see it that way. Many missed the message entirely and yet others got the message and reacted with rage to what they saw as a black man with far too much power and far too great a reach and influence.

As Michael dances atop the car in this segment, he deliberately became suggestive with close-ups, his hands and fingers and movements. In an era that already saw black males as hypercriminalized and hypersexualized, this part of the video is a blatant in-your-face insult and satirical rant spiced with audacious protest. Middle aged women were shocked and men were angry with Michael’s antics and many of those were still closeted racists. How dare this Negro (think epithet) turning white conscript a whole generation of not only black youth but the whites! And the last horror of course—he dares to zip his pants on camera! A black man who appears to be turning white, who dares to show off his sex appeal to white youth and dares to confront, in a close up and on camera, the Mandingo myth of the hypersexual black male in a still pseudo-puritanical society. He then throws the garbage away and dances in the street in an artful, expressive, animalistic and uninhibited way—just that same reference to losing one’s control or sense of restraint that permeates the myth. That must have made some people extremely uncomfortable and others squirm as they absorbed the subliminal message even if they didn’t consciously know what it meant.

After he clearly tells us he capable of being an animal, is a sexual being and will not be restrained, he goes on to prove it by dancing in water, ripping his shirt and destroying the sign: “Royal Arms” which looks like the neon billboard for a hotel. Does “royal arms” refer to something else? Something British perhaps? What might that be? Just how far do those “royal arm” reach? It was the Brits who dubbed him “Wacko Jacko” and we see the “Royal Arms” destroyed and fallen to its demise in Black or White.

There are also historical accounts of vagrants and unknown artists making inn signs and painting “royal arms” in churches. “Royal arms” in that context means the British coat of arms which incorporates a lion and unicorn on a shield. It is  interesting to note this reference in art to royal arms and unknown or unrecognized artists. There is some significance to the inn sign that is neon and while we may never know what Michael was thinking. There are again some parallels to the song by Simon and Garfunkel Sound of Silence. In the lyrics, there is a reference to walking alone down cobblestone streets in the halo of street lamps. It also speaks of a neon god the people made which they prayed to—it was a sign that flashed out its warning that the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls. The song say that people talk without speaking and hear without listening and it amplifies the silence. The silence here is being silenced or now being able or not choosing to speak out. The “Sound of Silence” was a song that young Michael grew up with. Did he incorporate it into this video?

After the destructive rampage is finished, Michael looks around and winces at the damage he has done and quickly morphs back into a panther. We leave him as he walks on down the street still padding through the night in the hood.

To give us a little relief from that intensity, he gives us Bart Simpson, a cartoon father with that same mindset about this garbage being a waste of time, and a remote so that we can see that it’s all just illusion and that if it disturbs us, we can simply turn it all off… Click.


  1. gertrude said . . .

    Ive always thought the Panther Dance in Black or White was one of the greatest pieces of dance I would ever see. Now I KNOW it was. I knew B or W was heavier than we realized, but I knew it viscerally and it is such a gift to have its strata conciously exhibited and explained so knowledgably. Thank-you, thank-you.

    Posted May 5, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink
  2. Robbie M said . . .

    Thank you so much for this amazing journey through Black or White. It has been invaluable to have the historical context explained. I understood a fair bit of it, but your research has added another dimension to it for me. The panther dance in my personal opinion, is Michael`s finest dance video. His vision and drive leap out at you, and shake you out of your complacency, which is exactly what he intended. It was a bold, brave stance to take, and those who feared his influence over their children, made sure he became a marked man. My admiration for him is so deep, he was an inspiration to so many of us, and his legacy will ensure he will reach out to future generations. It has been a joy to travel this road with you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you Rev Barbara. Love and blessings from Scotland.

    Posted May 5, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Diana said . . .

    Thank you so much for your work on Black or White. While I “got” much of the symbolism before, I learned quite a bit from your work! I thank you! I have one question, that I didn’t see addressed: when the rap is happening, and the kids and Michael are on the stairs (there are those stairs again!)…at the end of the rap, as the line “I’m not gonna spend my life being a color” is spoken, there is a gesture that I notice is made by Michael and Macauley that I’ve wondered about. I have no idea what it means, but I’m sure it means something. Thanks again for all the work you put into writing these articles for us.

    Posted May 5, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Permalink
  4. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    Thanks Diana. I love that gesture. At concerts the audience would synchronize that gesture with the music. You will notice that they appear as if they are rubbing their face and then offering it to you. I believe it’s a reference to my face is a color but it doesn’t define me. You can’t rub the color off and it shouldn’t matter. It takes a lot of extra energy and life force to live one’s like being a certain color or race or ethnicity or sex or orientation or whatever because it has to be kept perpetually in consciousness. And everything must be approached within and from that context. What it means is that I want to spend my life being a human being– a loving, warm, special and accepted human being. I don’t want to be first a color (race) and have my identity and my life flow from that distinction. I want to first be a human of the species homosapien. I don’t want to be made “other” because of my skin color or any of those other ways we find to divide us and justify man’s inhumanity to man.”

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 12:31 am | Permalink
  5. gertrude said . . .

    As an Italian, I also felt that there was a dismissiveness to that gesture where Michael and Mac rub ther faces off and put them at you. Italians (and no doubt many other ethnicities) love gestures of that nature when expressing a “to hell with it” feeling or attitude about something. Italians from my hood have always used some form or other of flinging things off their faces to express such sentiments, or to express their contempt or feeling that something was insignificant, and it struck me that Michael adapted that “sign” kind of perfectly.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink
  6. Nicole P-H said . . .

    Barbara, I have also a question: do you think that the plaster in Michael’s arm in this video has a particular meaning ? I was thinking that it might symbolise the wounds of African-American people who have been victims of lynching, etc… What do you think ? Thank you so very much, dear Barbara, for this WORK OF LOVE that you are doing here in this beautiful website. You are doing so much for Michael and for us all, in the name of Love. I do realise that it must be a hard task at times for you… I am very grateful that you gave birth to Inner Michael. I love you, God bless you. Nicole

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  7. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    Thank you Nicole for the kind words. Are you speaking of the splint on his arm? The original story is that Michael sprained his wrist and had to wear a splint. They “talked” about it so much in the gossip magazines that he laughed about it and made it part of his “uniform.” The splints became gold on his History tour! The arm band was to commemorate that there were still hungry children in the world. Michael felt is was our job (all humans on the planet) collectively to feed them. If anyone knows a different version of the story, let us know.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  8. Lauren said . . .

    I recall feeling that inner twang when I first viewed this dance. Couldn’t identify what that was at the time. As Rev. Kaufmann says, many people most probably had the same experience. Then came the critics and outrage… at the time I must have accepted that was why I felt something bouncing around inside. However, I now understand what Michael was saying and how he went about it and I also understand the courage it took for him to do that. He knew exactly what he was doing and knew what the response would be…here we are 20 years later and the light goes on. This is social activism at it’s finest. Powerful and subtle… and those it was directed at understood all too well what Michael was doing. And he paid for it.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  9. Docas said . . .

    I am amazed how Michael had the ability to see things in reference to the future. I believe he knew that his bold messages in this video will someday be explored and interpreted. Usher once said in an interview that Michael (his mentor) told him to be mindful of history. You can certainly tell that Michael was mindful of history in this video. In addition, Michael was a sensitive person and I’m sure he was hurt by the media’s criticism, but he never showed his anger or went after them publicly. He believed that his work would do all of the talking because its mission was to glorify God at the end. Everything that happened in between would be taken care of because history has shown to do just that.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  10. Docas said . . .

    Thank you again for the wonderful journey.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink
  11. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    We need to remember too that WE are history and we can change its course just in case it’s not always taken care of. ~B

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink
  12. Robbie M said . . .

    Thank you for the reminder Rev Barbara. Michael was telling us about it with his song History. “Every day create your history, every path you take you`re leaving your legacy. And what a legacy he has left! With your insight and sensitivity you are helping us all to see it in a new light. I don`t know how I coped before I found your website, but I am so grateful for everything you do. Love and blessings from Scotland.

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  13. Danielle said . . .

    Rev. Kaufmann,

    Though I often visit here, I rarely have posted. But today I wanted to make sure to thank you for this wonderful space you have created here in tribute to Michael. Every time I read a new piece by you, I come away having learnt something more , something that I might have felt only intangibly before.

    The tapestry of Michael Jackson’s incredible body of work demands deeper study and reflection and you unravel the MJ code so gracefully and with such skill.

    I very much hope you will do with other MJ songs what you have done here with Black or White. There are so many other song statements of his and I would look forward to reading your in depth insights.

    I have also taken a look at the Voices Education curriculum, especially the packet to do with Words and Violence. I could not agree more with what’s written there. I really admire the integrity and character reflected in the stances you have taken in your writings. Thank you for speaking out and wanting to make a change.

    Posted May 9, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  14. Danielle said . . .

    I wished to add my thoughts on the signage in the video which says ‘Royal Arms’. On looking up google images for ‘royal arms,’ the search threw up some pictures of a pile of guns, grenades, weapons. Perhaps Royal Arms meant to symbolize that status quo and set up in the world which kills, divides, destroys. The forces of war, disharmony, racism, class systems which pander to man’s lower instincts.

    Posted May 9, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  15. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    Whether this is the intent or not, I’m thinking Michael would have liked this find of yours. ~B

    Posted May 9, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink
  16. Dalia said . . .

    Every time I know something new about Michael, increasingly I am rendered to his charm, it is amazing how one so beautiful and bright even today is unnoticed. I have a friend fan of just 14 years old and in her school, a teacher have asked them to made ​​a presentation about their favorite artist. They must display a song and talk about the message of the song as well as the artist’s career. Despite their parents opposition logically she chose Michael for the work of the school. She made a beautiful poster with pictures of Michael and the song “Heal The World” but had the precaution to laminate it to prevent attacks on the photos by their classmates. What she never imagined, is that she would never stand with his prepared speech class because when the teacher realized that she would present something on Michael Jackson, told her that this artist was not proper and was not allowed …. Until when will these acts of hate or ignorance will continue to be seen by us? When she told me that, I had no words to comfort her, I just feel sad too. Michael is gone but but now it is we who are feeling this hatred. Thanks Barbara for your explanation of this work of art from the amazing MJ. Kisses!

    Posted May 10, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink
  17. Greet Boete Belgium said . . .

    Thank you again Rev. Barbara. Your website should be a “regular visited one” in schools. IMO, Michael has so much to teach us, and you are so great in explaining, it would be one important step in the heal the world process. As for the “Royal Arms” : without doing any research on that, I always took it for granted it was his anger against all forms of weapons or destructive material. And I am willing to believe what Danielle said.

    Posted May 10, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  18. souldreamer7 said . . .

    Again I wish you Light & Love as I did with a comment here when this was posted.

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink
  19. Kim said . . .

    Your work on behalf of Michael is sincerely appreciated. Like others have stated, I have learned so much by reading your words and insight. I feel like I just have received another awakening. Thank you much.

    Posted May 25, 2011 at 3:28 am | Permalink
  20. Nikki said . . .

    I just finished reading your entire Black or White series and I can’t thank you enough for sharing your research and insight. In particular, the explanation of the meaning of the Panther, as a power animal. This was the missing puzzle piece for me. Thank you Rev. B!

    Posted May 29, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink
  21. aso said . . .

    Thank you so much for this analysis, it allows me to see this powerful dance in a new light. I just stumbled onto your site, it’s half past two in the morning, Michael has been gone for two years and I still find out new things about him – tonight, thanks to you. I’m not sure Michael always gave words to his artistic impulses, I think he felt as much as he planned, the soul and body worked simultaneously. That said, I believe he was putting far more conscious thought into his artistry than we quite understood at the time. And once again I feel anger that his creative mind was so abused and that he is not here anymore to keep imagining, dancing and working.

    Posted June 16, 2011 at 12:44 am | Permalink
  22. Eva Maria Uhl said . . .

    Dear Barbara Kaufman,
    I,m always overwhelmed and completely touched by all of your true thrilling statements about Michael..
    Since he passed away,more and more fans and people awaken and realize who Michael really was and why he was here…We Had Him…Maya Angelou….
    I feel his presence in the morning all day, mostly after midnight until dawn. His spirit guides me, even he take my hand to find anything new and interesting things, people,nature offerings and many more…
    Do you know Petra Schwabe? She is painting, she also painted Mjs soul-angel..and the best ever..I called her to ask,if she would paint something for me,she replied,that she is painting for famous people, whom asking, but we talked a while on phone,about her life purpose and mine….so, she promised me, she would paint my soul angel. Awe…can u imagine my excitement????
    After one year, ab june, Ive got my angel…had no words…just so grateful and blessed…
    For dearest Michael… yes we had YOU…and now we still have you in spirit. You are a blessing as We all are… Im awaken…Namaste:)
    With much love,Eva Maria…

    Posted August 10, 2015 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  23. jmj said . . .

    Burning Commercial sign is “Royal arms hotel”, some English stuff for sure.

    Posted March 16, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  24. Brenda Garrett said . . .

    I just want to thank you for clearing up matters that concerned a lot of,other people concerning MJ’s Black or White. Sometimes people have a tendency to take things way out of context, and add their own meaning to another man’s story. But with research, one does not have to assume, as this is just what you have exemplified, here. You did your research, and gave explanations to the controversial parts. People fail to realize, there is so much one person can take, and so to get it out of their system, they vent, in their own form or fashion. And this, in my opinion, is what MJ was doing.

    Posted August 17, 2016 at 8:53 am | Permalink

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