In the opening scene of A&E and Lifetime’s much-heralded new documentary on Janet Jackson—titled, simply, Janet Jackson.—she sits in the backseat of a car that is driving through her hometown of Gary, Indiana, on the outskirts of Chicago. It marks the first time she’s returned in four decades. Jackson is talking about why she decided to participate in the film, which has been widely promoted as a “definitive insight” into the life of a mysterious but beloved pop culture icon—“I just felt like it had to be done,” she says, referencing unauthorized biographies and documentaries as examples of her narrative being misrepresented—before she’s stopped in her tracks by the sight of a mural on the side of a building of her brothers. “That’s so sweet,” she says, before breaking into tears.
It proves to be a rare crack in the facade for Jackson, who throughout the course of the four-part documentary, filmed over the past five years, retains a remarkable level of self-control even as she revisits some of the most traumatic moments of her life. (Of which, it becomes clear, there have been more than any single person should ever deserve.) Multiple marriages were broken apart by her partners’ addictions or infidelity, while the intense pressures of a childhood in the spotlight led to deeply-seated body image issues that manifested in an unspecified eating disorder. “When you have someone say you’re too heavy, even when it’s out of love, it affects you,” she says, in typically restrained terms. For years, she was forced to play second-fiddle to her most famous sibling by the media; that is until he was drawn into the maelstrom surrounding his highly-publicized pedophilia trial, being dropped from lucrative sponsorship deals by association and expected to answer for his alleged crimes. And all that’s without even mentioning the racism and misogyny she suffered throughout, reaching a horrifying apex after the infamous “Nipplegate” scandal.
Some have criticized the documentary for exploring these thorny issues with a mostly genuflecting tone, allowing Jackson to steer the conversations to the topics she feels most comfortable with and to gloss over some of the more divisive subject matter. (Jackson is also credited as a producer on the film.) But really, if anybody deserved the right to tell their story on their own terms, it’s Jackson. When talking about her father’s notoriously controlling approach to his children’s careers—which some of her siblings have previously alleged entered the realm of abuse—her answers are summarily delivered. “He was very tough,” she says. “He told us what he wanted us to do and we did it.” Later, however, she adds: “Discipline without love is tyranny, and tyrants they were not. They just loved us and wanted us to be the best we could be. Obviously, it worked.” If that’s how Jackson remembers it, then that’s how Jackson remembers it. Who are we to argue?
Whether or not you feel Jackson conclusively answers the many question marks that hang over her life and career conclusively may largely depend on the viewer. The rumors of mothering a secret child with her first husband, James DeBarge, who was raised by her siblings are swiftly put to rest in the first episode. On the allegations of sexual abuse leveled at her late brother Michael, she remains steadfast in supporting him: “I know my brother, [and] he didn’t have that in him.” Arguably the most anticipated moment in the documentary is the 2004 Super Bowl fiasco, which was promised to be explored in unprecedented depth. The director, Benjamin Hirsch, may have been beaten to the punch on that slightly by the New York Times’s well-titled Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, released as a follow up to their powerful Britney Spears documentary earlier last year—but what Hirsch does have on his side is testimony from Jackson herself, and her take on the debacle is surprisingly philosophical.
She notes that she told Timberlake at the time not to respond to the media furor and that she would take the brunt of the blame. Jackson ended up taking all that and more: CBS boss Les Moonves, on whose network the Super Bowl was aired, essentially enforced an industry-wide blacklisting of Jackson that tanked her career. The film also doesn’t account for Timberlake’s conduct in the wake of the controversy: A tearful apology to Moonves allowed him to attend the Grammys that year while Jackson remained banned, in what was widely perceived as an attempt to throw Jackson under the bus. Still, Jackson is clearly willing to let bygones be bygones, describing her and Timberlake as “good friends” and asking her fans to finally “move on.”