Michael Jackson’s short film for the single release of his song Remember the Time (1992) has been referred to as an Egyptian fantasy or extravaganza. Certainly in design, depiction and execution, it appears more indebted to classic Hollywood musicals than to actual history. Its primary focus was, of course, as a promotional vehicle for the single release of the song – the second from the Dangerous album.
In researching the Remember the Time short film, we invariably read about Michael’s love for ancient Egypt, and how director John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) agreed to helm the project if he could have an all-black cast. However, not usually mentioned – but of more interest to me as a student of ancient history, are possible historical precursors to the character Michael plays in the film.
Some sources on Remember the Time refer to Michael’s character as “a black-robed wizard”. (1) However, “wizard” is a title derived from the Middle English word “wys” (meaning wise) and the suffix “ard” and only after the mid-16th Century AD did it gain its present meaning of describing someone with magical abilities. (2)
We should therefore more correctly refer to Remember the Time’s mysterious visitor as a “magician”. “Michael said, ‘We have to put Magic in this video.’ I’ll always remember that” Singleton recalled in 2009. (3)
In reality, the magicians of ancient Egypt had, prior to the first millennium BC, been both priests and magicians, performing ceremonies and casting spells. (4) We can even draw an analogy here if we look at Michael’s big production performances as “ceremonies” and the way in which he “casts a spell” on his audience (i.e. us) in whatever he does.
Ancient Egyptian magicians figure in the Old Testament Bible in the Book of Exodus 7:10-12 when the Pharaoh, in attempting to replicate Aaron’s feat in turning his staff into a serpent, “called for the sages and sorcerers, and by their spells the magicians of Egypt did the same.” (5)
However, we don’t have to rely on Hebrew or Greek texts for stories of Egyptian magicians, because there are actual Egyptian sources that refer to specific individuals. These included Meryra, who made a “man of clay” and Khaemwaset, whose name means “He who appears in the Thebes”. Although the tales of him are fanciful, they are based on a historical individual who is well-known to Egyptologists from the statues of him (as depicted top right in the photo montage above) and other artifacts. (6)
There are other historical references in Remember the Time’s whimsical depiction of ancient Egypt.
At the beginning of the film, images of two very real Egyptian royals appear (and disappear) amongst the swirling sands of time, followed by a glimpse of the Old Kingdom monuments of the Sphinx and Pyramids at Giza. (7) The bust of the male that first appears is of the New Kingdom pharaoh Ramesses the Great (Ramesses II) d. 1212 BC and that of the queen that follows is easily recognized as being Nefertiti d. 1331 BC the Great Royal Wife of Akhenaten d. 1336 BC. (8)
While Eddie Murphy can’t really be said to resemble the bust of Ramesses II (or Akhenaten, either), Iman certainly presents a very credible impression of Nefertiti. The famous bust she so resembles was created circa 1340 BC by the sculptor Thutmose. This priceless artifact is today a star exhibit in the Neues Museum in Berlin. (9)
Eddie Murphy’s headdress resembles a gold version of a type of headdress which Akhenaten is shown wearing on some statuary, stele and wall paintings.
While neither Ramesses II or Nefertiti and Akhenaten are from the era of the famous “Black Pharaohs”, i.e. the Nubian kings who ruled Egypt as the country’s 25th dynasty from 760-656 BC, I think the director’s point in casting the Remember the Time short film is to remind people that the ancient Egyptian royalty were Africans, so why shouldn’t they be played by an African-American and a Somalian respectively, contrary to the lead actors of most Hollywood Biblical epics? (10)
The issue of ethnicity aside (see my note below), Remember the Time depicts a fictionalized Pharaoh and his beautiful Queen at the height of their dynastic powers – until a mysterious stranger arrives to cure the Queen of her boredom and to remind her, perhaps, of their secret, shared, past.
Ancient Egyptians loved music, dancing and singing. Love songs were not uncommon – being mostly written by eloquent scribes. (11) Thus, Michael Jackson can indulge his love for ancient Egypt – and the African continent and its people – while weaving his own considerable magic on his global audience.
As is the case with so much of Michael’s art, there are layers upon layers, and much for the fan and scholar to explore. For me, Remember the Time has prompted actual historical research in terms of people and occupations of the ancient past as well as how they are interpreted by popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
7 July 2017
A note on ancient Egyptians:
The ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians is a subject of considerable scholarly debate, some of which has, I think, more to do with modern views on race and racism than actual evidence. Michael’s short film reflects some important arguments in this debate which have been taken up by proponents of Singleton’s vision of ancient Egypt. (12)
Understandably, the ancient Egyptians had their own way of defining their identity in comparison to others, as depicted in New Kingdom pictorial and written sources. (13)
But, as one modern source wisely notes: “objectivity remains elusive within the race debate, and is perhaps impossible.” (14)
(1) Text accompanying the official video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeiFF0gvqcc
(13) ‘Digital Egypt for Universities’ website of the University College London: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/social/race.html
Further information and additional reading:
Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin: http://www.egyptian-museum-berlin.com/c53.php
Akhenaten: Egyptian Pharaoh, Nefertiti’s Husband, Tut’s Father https://www.livescience.com/39349-akhenaten.html
Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great): http://www.ancient.eu/Ramesses_II/
Michael Bush “The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson” [large hardcover pictorial book which includes some interesting information on Michael’s Remember the Time costume] https://www.amazon.com/King-Style-Dressing-Michael-Jackson/dp/1608871517
Photo montage: “Magicians Rule!!!” compiled and edited by Kerry Hennigan using professional photographs sourced through Google.