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Series / The Jacksons: An American Dream

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The Jacksons: An American Dream is a four-hour miniseries broadcast in two parts on ABC in November 1992. Based on the history of the famed musical Jackson family (based largely on Katherine Jackson's autobiography My Family), the series was executive produced and overseen by family member Jermaine Jackson and fellow Motown alumni Suzanne de Passe, alongside Joyce Eliason and Margaret Maldonado, with Karen Arthur taking up directorial duties.

The first half of the series deals with Katherine and Joe Jackson raising their kids in Gary, Indiana and later dealing with the early fame of The Jackson 5. Part two focuses on the troubles of a young Michael Jackson as he deals with his brothers marrying early into their success, acne problems, his relationship with his father, his status as a global icon thanks to his albums Off the Wall and Thriller, and his infamous Pepsi commercial accident.

Notable for being the first film and TV appearances of Terrance Howard (who played Jackie Jackson) and Jason Weaver, as well as featuring veterans such as Billy Dee Williams, Angela Bassett and Vanessa Williams, the miniseries was critically and commercially successful and won an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Individual Achievement in Choreography". The movie would also receive a Spiritual Successor in Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story more than a decade later.

A bit of tragic trivia: Wylie Draper, who was personally selected by Michael Jackson to portray his adult self in the series, died a year after the series premiere after being diagnosed with leukemia.

This Miniseries features examples of:

  • The '40s: Joe and Katherine's courtship, beginning with the meeting and bonding at a club, a mention of Joe marrying another woman and swiftly ending that marriage, his returning to Katherine, and their eventual marriage upon Katherine's first pregnancy.
  • The '50s: Joe tries to get his band, the Falcons, off the ground in order to support his young family, while struggling with temporary layoffs at the Gary, Indiana steel mills, and Katherine gave birth to her seventh surviving child, Michael.
  • The '60s: Joseph realizes his sons have musical talent, and starts rigorously training them, sometimes to the point of abuse, and entering them in talent shows, eventually bringing on the beginnings of the Jackson Five.
  • The '70s: During their Motown years, Tito and Jermaine's marriages, and their eventual switch to Epic records and renaming themselves The Jacksons, except Jermaine, who remains with Motown.
  • The '80s: The period where Michael gets the most focus, Katherine confronts Joe on his infidelity (although they reconcile) Also the period where the Victory Tour takes place.
  • Abusive Parents: The Jackson kids have made no secret about how abusive Joseph was over the years, and the miniseries didn't shy away from it one bit, showing him physically assaulting his kids several times. Katherine, however, is given a much more positive portrayal as the gentle, loving, and long-suffering matriarch of the Jackson family.
    • Joseph is also portrayed as a poor role model for the kids. In one scene, he gives Jackie and the leader of a jealous neighbourhood singing group (played by Boyz II Men) boxing gloves so they can settle their differences and "do it right". Katherine, of course, is less than pleased with her husband effectively sanctioning a boxing match between two teenage boys.
  • Artistic License – History: The series sticks very close to its source material, but there were a few goofs and anachronisms here and there:
    • The movie states Michael was born in 1959 when he was actually born in 1958.
    • When Jermaine and Hazel call Joseph to tell him they're getting married, they're using a payphone with push buttons. Jermaine married Hazel in 1973; push buttons on payphones weren't widely used until the 1980s.
    • Michael is shown recording "Human Nature" in 1983. The song and its album, Thriller, were recorded and released in 1982.
    • The Jackson brothers are shown recording "Kansas City" as their first single on Steeltown Records when it was actually "Big Boy".
    • Tito certainly got caught and spanked for breaking Joseph's guitar strings, but that was when Tito was ten, rather than twelve or thirteen.
    • Jackie, Tito and Jermaine were original group members, but Marlon and Michael didn't join them until later.
    • Berry Gordy didn't actually see the Jackson Five audition for Motown in person; he was sent a taping of it.
    • In the scene that re-enacts Michael's infamous Pepsi commercial accident, Michael is shown falling down the stairs after his head is burned by the pyrotechnics. However, footage from the real incident showed that Michael didn't realize his hair was on fire until he made it to the bottom of the steps.
    • Prior to their first tour under Motown, the brothers are shown listening to a recording of Michael's solo hit "Rockin' Robin" in 1970. The song wasn't recorded until 1972 for Michael's solo debut Got to Be There.
    • Michael is shown having a dimple in his chin as early as the late '70s (In real life, he didn't get the implant until 1986). His actor, the late Wylie Draper, had that dimple naturally, so it was less artistic license and more due to the actor's appearance.
    • The Victory Tour at the end is presented as a big triumphant event where the Jacksons finally come back together and perform. It very much was not that in real life. The tour was such a troubled affair and put Michael under so much stress that he quit the group after their final show at Dodgers Stadium, focusing instead on his massively successful solo career.
    • When it's revealed Joseph is cheating on Katherine towards the end, very few specifics are revealed. In reality, he had carried on a twenty-three-year long affair with another woman and had a child with her, Joh'Vonnie Jackson, whom to this day the Jackson family refuses to acknowledge. The film portrays Joe and Katherine making up, but in reality, the only reason she didn't divorce him was that her faith as a Jehovah's Witness prevented her from it. By all accounts, it was the end of their marriage and they opted to live mostly separately until Joe's death in 2018 (although Katherine publicly denied the estrangement).
    • Joseph is fired as the Jacksons' manager in 1983, shortly after his affair is revealed. This is incorrect; the affair was discovered in the late 1970s, at which point Michael (who was known to be closer to his mother) promptly fired his overbearing father, but his brothers overruled him by including Joseph with their new management. Michael eventually severed ties with Joseph for good in 1984, after being caught in the crossfire of a public spat between Joseph and said management.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Young Michael Jackson is an especially sensitive boy, but nothing pushes his buttons more than talk of his older brothers getting married, as he fears marriage would threaten their membership in the Jackson 5.
    • Joseph has at least a couple aside from his obvious lack of patience for mistakes, back-talk, and disrespect. One, you do not tell him that he's pushing his boys too hard. Two, you do not get married at a young age, especially if you're already a famous Motown recording artist. (Even if Joe was 21 and Katherine 19 when they got married.). His disapproval of Tito's announcement was more outright, while his disapproval of Jermaine's was more passive-aggressive.
  • Big Fancy House: The Jacksons move into Hayvenhurst after landing their Motown contract.
  • Call-Back: When Suzanne is trying to convince Berry Gordy to sign the Jackson Five to Motown, She says "Just give me a slow yes instead of a fast no." She says the same thing years later when pleading with Berry to convince Michael to appear with his brothers in "Motown 25".
  • Calling Parents by Their Name: The boys address their father Joseph by his name instead of calling him "Dad" however when they try to do the same with Katherine, they are admonished for doing so.
    Katherine: I'm Mother, and don't you dare forget it.
  • Coming of Age Story: The film is this for the brothers from the middle of the first half on.
  • Determinator: Marlon. In the earliest days of the group, he has a lot of trouble keeping up with the dance steps, and can't sing very well. As such, he bears the brunt of Joseph's perfectionist rage, and his older brothers are annoyed with his inability to keep up. It even gets to the point where Joseph is considering kicking him off the group. Marlon keeps practicing on his own, and before long, he's recognized as the best dancer in the group.
  • First-Name Basis: It's Joseph, not "Joe", and especially not "Dad" or "Father", for the Jackson kids.
  • Gilligan Cut: Michael is terrified of plane crashes, and the stress of being on tour gets to him, so Michael swears he's never boarding another plane again. Suzanne and the boys bribe him with candy, but that doesn't work. Cut to Joseph carrying a screaming, crying Michael onto a plane in the middle of a downpour.
    Suzanne: There's nothing to worry about! The plane is not gonna crash! Michael! Now, stop it! We gotta get on the plane!
    Joseph: Michael, you're nuts! You're nuts!
  • G-Rated Sex: Happens a couple of times, with the implied conception of both Rebbie and Janet.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Joseph has this towards Berry Gordy, particularly after an incident where he yells at Michael not to touch the mixing board at the recording studio, which piqued the boy's interest, and Gordy comes in shortly afterwards and calmly explains to him how the buttons work, gives him permission to see for himself their function and puts his arm around him in a fatherly manner.
  • His Own Worst Enemy: Michael's self-loathing comes out in full force during the tail end of his Motown career. He's extremely self-conscious about his appearance (especially since he was going through a severe acne outbreak), hates his nose, thinks that his career is failing, feels disrespected by his fans and fellow industry peoples, and predicts that he'll never move out until he's 28 because he's ten years behind in everything. It's not until he records Thriller years later that he gets past his severe self-loathing.
  • Hypocrite: Tito calls out Joseph for criticizing him for seeing his girlfriend during rehearsals while Jermaine was allowed to bring his. However, Joseph correctly points out that Jermaine's girlfriend is Berry Gordy's daughter, and not even he would be stupid enough to jeopardize their standing with Motown by kicking her out.
    • Same goes for Joe objecting to Tito getting married to Dee-Dee Martes, and Jermaine getting married to Hazel Gordy both at age 20 thinking it would impact the Jackson 5 despite getting married to Katherine at 21.
  • Ironic Echo: "Trust me, Katie. I'll never do anything to hurt you."
  • Landing Gear Shot: One scene shows Randy, Janet, and Katherine arriving in California to stay with Joe and the boys in Hayvenhurst.
  • Man on Fire: The series re-enacts the scene of Michael's infamous pyrotechnics accident near the end of the second half. Though it's downplayed, as it only shows his hair smoking.
  • The Mistress: Joseph is revealed to have one in the second half of episode two. Kathrine overhears Joseph talking to his mistress on the phone. She lashes out at him and quickly leaves for her mother's home. They eventually reconcile a few scenes later.
  • Moonwalk Dance: Twice, during Michael's performance at Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When Michael is in the hospital being treated for burns from his hair being set aflame, Joe, while sitting with him, for the first time, shows a small bit of remorse for the abuse and manipulation he has put Michael and the other boys through. Of course, Michael still is unwilling to talk to him or forgive him for it.
  • Never My Fault: When Joseph is fired from being the Jacksons' manager, he blames the businessmen he admittedly brought in for help for turning his sons' against him. Joseph completely avoids the fact that a few weeks prior, he was revealed to be cheating on their mother, which no doubt made their decision a lot easier.
  • Oh, Crap!: The group was scheduled to sing the US national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," at the World Series, but 20 minutes before they were supposed to perform, the boys confess that they have never sung it before. note  Fortunately, the staff was able to find someone who knew the lyrics and the Jackson brothers were able to quickly rehearse it for showtime for a well-received performance.
  • Rejecting the Consolation Prize: While performing at a local talent competition, the Jacksons refuse to accept the second runner-up prize, which was a colour television.
  • Rise of Zitboy: Downplayed. Michael is shown going through bad acne problems in the second half and is extremely self-conscious about it (among other things), but it's treated realistically.
  • Same Language Dub: Justified, as the cast usually lip-synced to the original brothers' recordings. When said recordings weren't available for certain songs, soundalikes dubbed them over. The exception to this rule was Jason Weaver, who sang his own vocals while portraying Michael Jackson.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • Immediately after the family gets home from Jermaine's wedding, Michael, who has been depressed by its implications for the group and its fans, quietly and sadly says goodnight to his mother and tells her he's going to bed.
    • Upon learning of Joseph's affair (and his pathetic excuses to try and explain it away as a misunderstanding), Katherine drives off to her mother's home in Alabama, telling no one except for eventually their eldest child Rebbie.
  • Second Place Is for Losers: Instead of claiming their prize (a colour TV) for coming in second place in a local talent show, Joe walks out with his sons and adamantly chooses not to replace their black-and-white TV with a colour model. His rationale? "Second IS losing."
  • Shot-for-Shot Remake: Michael's Motown 25 "Billie Jean" routine in the miniseries is a near 1:1 match with the original, right down to the Moonwalk and toe-stand. The only differences were the stage setup, some of the camera angles, the pacing of the movements, and which hand Wylie Draper had the sequin glove on (Michael had it on his left hand, while Wylie has it on his right hand).
  • Stage Dad: On more than one occasion, Katherine calls Joe out for living vicariously through his children.
  • Stock Footage: Clips of the real-life brothers' past performances were used in the opening sequence.
  • Thicker Than Water: Joseph is quick to remind Jermaine of this when the former decides to stay at Motown.
    Joseph: You just remember one thing: That's my blood that's going through your veins. Not. Berry. Gordy's!
  • Unknown Rival: Invoked by Joseph, who orders his sons stopping associating with The Osmonds, telling them that they are their professional rivals. The boys in turn protest this, stating how they have nothing against the band and even defend them to their father as nice kids.
  • The Usurper: Subverted. Joseph has this attitude towards Motown boss Berry Gordy, whom the Jackson boys look up to more than their own father. While he is portrayed as more easy-going and patient than Joseph, Gordy is never shown to be disrespectful towards Joseph and doesn't cross any lines. Michael later admits that he wished Gordy was his father, and while flattered, Gordy doesn't encourage the notion.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Joe Jackson, to a tee. While he definitely goes too far with his discipline and abuse, it's clear the main reason he does what he does, is so his boys will become tough, stay out of trouble, and be more successful with their talents than he was with his.