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Four Hours Later, and Janet Jackson Remains an Enigma

The A&E and Lifetime documentary, Janet Jackson., aired January 28. The two-night, four-hour event promised to reveal more about Jackson’s life and career.

My hope was that the trailer wasn’t over promising what it would inevitably deliver. Jackson, notoriously tight-lipped about her personal life – and even some aspects of her professional life – hasn’t always participated in conversations surrounding her legend.

Fans recognize both the tenacity that goes into creating the body of work that Jackson has amassed and that twice-as-hard hustle she’s had to maintain to mount the highs, and survive the lows, of life as a Black woman who dares to live publicly.

Unfortunately, we don’t dive into the complexities of those things in Janet Jackson.

There are nice moments. Unseen footage of her engagement to second-husband, René Elizondo, of her working on Poetic Justice, and more of her just living life amongst the backdrop of art that permeates so many of our lives. There are brief interviews with the people closest to her during certain seasons of her life who, it seems, were allowed to spill scant amounts of tea about her previous marriages and relationships.

But it wasn’t until we arrive at the point of 2019 in Jackson’s life that I was able to put my finger on why Janet Jackson. was falling flat for me. About 30 minutes into the final hour, Janelle Monáe and Amir ‘Questlove’ Thompson share their insights on Jackson’s career. Monáe, who inducted Jackson into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, said of the event “It was a huge honor. She has been the DNA for music, …, especially when it comes to Black women in music.”

Thompson, a member of the board of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee, spoke on Jackson’s induction saying, “I was so happy that she made the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Janet Jackson’s tenacious drive and her sheer will, is exemplary… You’ve got to understand that it would be so easy to sort of rely on the benefits that your last name grants you. But just the fact that she had to work three times as hard as a Jackson, as a woman, as a Black person, not only just to carve her space in the world but then establish it to where it becomes the standard.”

It’s these moments that give us a fleeting glimpse of what could have been.

Jackson has had a tremendous impact on pop culture, Black people, and especially Black women. Her work cannot be summed up and surmised as records or concert tickets sold.

No disrespect to director, Benjamin Hirsch, but I’d hoped to feel more love, respect, effort, and consideration in those four hours. His, and I imagine Jackson’s, vision felt too cut and dry. Trying to explain the life and times of a woman I personally consider one of the Patron Saints of Black girls is no easy feat, but I believe the docuseries may have hit the desired expectations had it been shepherded by a Black woman director.

I noticed a similar challenge in last year’s, HBOMAX documentary, TINA. Directed by T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsey, it too promised to give fans more insight into its subject, the legendary Tina Turner. While TINA was beautifully done, it left me focused less on the story it told and more on what was left out. The film works hard to give fans more insight into Turner’s life; however, it focuses on the aftermath of the tumultuous relationship she survived as half of Ike and Tina, rather than the relaunching of her career and the second act of her life as simply Tina.

The directors do a great job giving us more context of the near constant re-traumatization Turner faced from media and fans after her revelations about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband. But, somehow, the directors didn’t notice that focusing so much  on the aftermath of that relationship they’d: one, let Turner’s abusive husband take up more space than necessary in her own story once again; and two, sacrificed the opportunity to deeply explore the relaunching of Turner’s career at 40 which rightly resulted in her becoming the Queen of Rock and Roll. That resilience and rebuilding is the story I was desperate for by the end of TINA.

The director of  Janet Jackson. had similar struggles. By focusing on records and ticket sales, the film never went deep enough into the importance of Jackson’s work to and her feelings about her place in popular culture. Nothing about Jackson’s career and life seems easy from the outside looking in, and it is easy to get distracted by the external, “shinier” aspects of Jackson’s story and difficult to delve into the uncharted waters of Jackson’s life. But I think Jackson’s story could have gained that texture and nuance in the hands of a Black woman, who would probably have gone deeper than a simple rehashing of what happened on the way to becoming an icon.

I wanted to know how Janet felt about publicly embracing her sexuality after so many years covering herself up and dealing with body image issues. I wanted to hear about what she learned and took from Michael’s level of fame and how she crafted her public persona. How does she feel about fame and how has she managed this level of notoriety for so many decades without losing herself? How has she made peace with her body image and aging? How did she feel when the calculated campaign against her after “the incident” was revealed?  How does it feel to still be standing despite the men that have tried – purposely and inadvertently – to diminish, demean, or destroy her career?

Jackson sold a ton of records and is one of the biggest pop stars to ever do it, but in this docuseries a minimal amount of time and space is provided to explain Jackson’s impact on popular culture and particularly her influence on Black people, especially the Black women and femmes who love her – both known and unknown.

Jackson, for all her talents and efforts, has been one of the guiding lights of what Black womanhood can look like. As Monae says toward the end of the documentary, she taught “Black women [… how] to be free-ass mother****ers.”

It’s the life – both Jackson’s and her fans – that happens between the career highs and lows where the real story lies.

We make a lot of noise about giving people their flowers while they’re still around to smell them. Jackson still deserves that in the form of a documentary that is befitting of the life she’s led and the art she’s created. I hope we get another film that ventures into that territory.


Perdita Patrice is a Texas-based writer and documentary filmmaker. She enjoys live music, reading, and watching TV. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @perditapatrice


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