How Michael Jackson’s crotch-grabbing ‘Black or White’ dance routine shocked TV audiences in 1991

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Michael Jackson strikes a pose in his controversial 1991 music video

Michael Jackson strikes a pose in his controversial 1991 music video “Black or White.” (Photo: Propaganda Films / courtesy Everett Collection)

Well, he did warn us that his new album was going to be… Dangerous. Thirty years ago, Michael Jackson roared back onto the pop music scene with his long-awaited follow-up to 1987’s bestselling Bad. The first single off the record, “Black or White,” dropped on Nov. 11, 1991, and the music video followed on Nov. 14 with a simultaneous U.S. premiere on MTV, BET and VH1, as well as the rapidly-growing Fox network. 

In a canny bit of scheduling, the video’s debut followed an all-new episode of Fox’s breakout cartoon hit The Simpsons. Jackson had already guest-starred on the Season 3 premiere of Matt Groening’s brainchild that aired months earlier, and Bart and Homer returned the favor by appearing in a quick intro and outro that sandwiched the Fox airing. This writer was among those young never-miss-an-episode Simpsons fans who vividly remembers sticking around to watch “Black or White” because Bart told them to. 

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And it wasn’t only die-hard Simpsons fans who tuned in. The grandly orchestrated roll-out elevated “Black or White” to a can’t-miss pop culture event, one that was seen by an estimated 500 million viewers worldwide. No expense was spared in making the 11-minute video something they’d all remember. Jackson re-teamed with “Thriller” director John Landis for “Black or White,” which boasted a $4 million budget — making it still one of the most expensive music videos of all time

That price tag bought them cameos by Home Alone star — and Jackson’s personal friend — Macaulay Culkin, as well Cheers favorite, George Wendt. It also allowed for a super-sized cast of extras and backup dancers, as well as then-cutting edge special effects, most notably an extended face morphing sequence pioneered by the computer animation company Pacific Data Images and featuring a cameo by a young Tyra Banks. (PDI later became part of DreamWorks Animation, and worked on feature film hits like Shrek and Madagascar.)

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But it turned out to be the music and special effects-free final minutes of “Black or White” that attracted the most attention. In an extended epilogue, Jackson — in the body of a panther — slinks out of the soundstage where the video is being filmed (look for Landis’s cameo in the background) and into a rain-soaked alleyway where he morphs back into his human form. 

The singer then launches into a free-form dance routine that’s part Singin’ in the Rain and part Do the Right Thing. Over the course of the four-minute sequence, Jackson breaks a storefront window with a garbage can, vandalizes an abandoned car and repeatedly grabs his crotch, at one point pointedly pulling up his pants zipper in a tight close-up. 

Michael Jackson's controversial Michael Jackson's controversial

Michael Jackson’s controversial “Black or White” video featured an extended dance sequence where the King of Pop repeatedly grabbed his crotch. (Photo: YouTube)

Clearly, the then-King of Pop was seizing the moment to announce he was back and Badder than ever. But it also turned out to be a one night only performance. By the next morning, Jackson had agreed to cut the full dance sequence from all future airings of the video following an outcry from parents’ groups and major media outlets. 

For years afterwards, it was only the censored version of “Black or White,” ending with the soundstage scene before Jackson heads into the alley in panther form, that played on MTV and elsewhere. Since 2016, though, the full 11-minute video has been widely available on the late singer’s official YouTube page without any reference to the headlines-generating controversy it once provoked.  

Watch the full Black or White video below: 

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Entertainment Weekly captured the tone of that initial wave of coverage in its Nov. 29, 1991 cover story, which broke down what happened in the immediate wake of the video’s premiere airing. A Fox source told EW that the network’s phone lines started lighting up almost immediately with calls from parents who watched the video with their Simpsons-loving kids. “People couldn’t believe he did that,” the network insider said, referring to Jackson’s crotch-grabbing dance routine. “He wasn’t just grabbing his crotch — he was rubbing it.” 

Behind the scenes, Fox contacted Jackson, who reportedly offered to drop the entire dance sequence. The singer also issued an apology via his representatives. “It upsets me to think that ‘Black or White’ could influence any child or adult to destructive behavior, either sexual or violent,” the statement read. “I’ve always tried to be a good role model and therefore have made these changes to avoid any possibility of adversely affecting any individual’s behavior. I deeply regret any pain or hurt that the final segment of ‘Black or White’ has caused children, their parents or any other viewers.”

At the time, few were willing to publicly defend Jackson. Writing in The New York Times, music critic Jon Pareles panned the video as a “riot of derivativeness,” and speculated that the offending epilogue was a canny marketing ploy. “A viewer might wonder whether the ‘controversy’ was part of the plan; four minutes is a lot of network time, and having something banned would do wonders for Mr. Jackson’s PG image. It could make him seem, as the album title would have it, ‘Dangerous.'” (According to Entertainment Weekly, Sony Music — which signed Jackson to a $65 million contract in March 1991 — strenuously pushed back on the implication that this was all a publicity stunt.)

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Jackson ignited a firestorm with his “Black or White” video. (Photo: YouTube)

Certainly, the album’s sales weren’t hurt by the firestorm ignited by the video: When Dangerous dropped in stores on Nov. 26, it instantly topped the Billboard charts, and sold 1.8 million copies by the time the calendar flipped over to 1992. (That number rose to 15 million by the following November.) The accompanying world tour was equally successful, with Jackson playing 69 shows around the globe between June 1992 and November 1993. 

But a more serious career blow was waiting in the wings. In August 1993, Evan Chandler accused Jackson of sexually abusing his young son, Jordan, and the ensuing fallout quickly eclipsed anything that happened in “Black or White.” Although that case was eventually settled, Jackson’s public image was forever transformed: From 1993 until his death in 2009, reports swirled of erratic behavior, drug abuse and additional sexual abuse claims, two of which were explored in the devastating 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland

While Jackson’s overall legacy remains a complicated subject, the once-discarded epilogue to “Black or White” has been re-examined in recent years, with some critics now viewing it through the lens of contemporaneous events like the Rodney King verdict and the ensuing Los Angeles riots, which put racial injustice in the spotlight. Jackson himself made that case for it in a 1999 MTV interview, where he described it as an attempt to wrestle with the racial injustice he saw in America in the early ’90s, with the Rodney King incident still fresh in everyone’s mind. 

“I said I want to do a dance number where I could set out my frustration about injustice and prejudice and racism and bigotry,” Jackson remarked. “Within the dance, I just became upset and I let go, and that’s what happened. I think at the time people were concerned about the violent content of the piece, but it’s easy to look at. It’s simple.”