The 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Bad is prompting some well-deserved looks back on the landmark album—most notably a making-of documentary directed by Spike Lee and a commemorative special edition with unreleased tracks. But besides the record’s great songs, Bad is also responsible for Jackson’s best work in another genre: the music video—or “short film,” the term he preferred. For the album’s title track, Jackson collaborated with two greats from other media, the writer Richard Price (the author of Clockers, who later helped write The Wire) and the director Martin Scorsese, on an 18-minute short film that is one of the most introspective things Jackson ever did—and says more about Jackson’s take on racial identity than all the tracks on the actual album.
The film’s story plays out in black and white, with a four-minute musical interlude in color. It opens with Jackson’s character, Darryl, celebrating the end of a school semester with his all-white prep school classmates. As the boys pile down the school stairs, one friend congratulates him on a job well done: “You did a real good job this term, and uh, I guess I’m proud of you, you know? I see how hard you’re working.” Darryl smiles sheepishly and thanks him.
The moment will be familiar to any black American who has gone to a majority-white school, where white students and teachers can seem simultaneously surprised and proud when a black (aka “at-risk”) student succeeds. There are many such stories in Touré’s recent book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, in which black professionals recall their interactions with white counterparts who seem nonplussed about occupying the same social sphere. Tellingly, Darryl does not appear insulted by his classmates’ back-handed compliment—he glows, happy that another classmate is proud of him. There’s an echo here of Jackson’s eager-to-please artistry.
In his book, Touré notes that some people in the black community seem to agree with the notion that blackness is incompatible with academic achievement. When Darryl returns home to the inner city, his black “friends” (including a young Wesley Snipes) tease him for his articulateness, calling him “Joe College” and “Dobie Gillis.” When Darryl doesn’t go along with their plans to rob a stranger, they accuse him of not being “down.” “Are you bad or what?” Snipes asks.
The real question that’s being asked, of course, is whether or not Darryl/Jackson is truly “black,” and Jackson’s attempt to address that question—with the help of Price and Scorsese—is fascinating. In Spike Lee’s upcoming film, Price laughs at the thought that Jackson hired an Italian and a Jew to help him make a video that would “show the brothers that he’s down with them,” a hint, perhaps, at Jackson’s confusion about his relationship to his black audience. Recall that by 1987 Jackson had gone from critics’ darling to media target: No longer the cherubic, brown-skinned moonwalker everyone wanted to emulate, his whitened skin and slimmed-down nose caused many in the black community to question his solidarity with them. His later video for “Black or White” addressed the transformation—but with a global audience in mind. “Bad” addresses the black community directly.
By now, the images of Jackson and his street dancers in the video’s musical interlude are etched into popular memory, but the full version of the film is seen far less often. This is unfortunate, as the complete film has something striking to say about “acting white”—an accusation people still hear 25 years later, under the administration of a black president. The ending of “Bad” finds Darryl and his now former crew coming to an understanding—but with Darryl ultimately alone. Darryl does not quite “fit” in either of his worlds. Jackson, too, was never fully comfortable anywhere but on stage. And while “Bad” the song is about making “the world a better place,” the film takes on a different meaning: It is, finally, about making his own place, one no less true to his experience or identity than the more traditional options he saw in the world around him. What Jackson tried to express is that black identity has no limits.