This song is about censorship, with animal cruelty used as a metaphor. The "man in the box" is like a veal calf trapped in confinement.
The video got a lot of airplay on MTV and helped break the band. It was the first grunge video that got significant airplay, coming almost a year before Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
This was the first single from Alice in Chains debut album, Facelift. Released in August 1990 a year ahead of Pearl Jam's debut, the album didn't get much attention outside of the Pacific Northwest until 1991, when MTV picked up the "Man In The Box" video and radio stations started playing the song, nudging it to #18 on the Mainstream Rock chart dated July 6, 1991, the same date the album peaked at #42. As grunge caught on, Facelift earned more fans, but it was a slow build: the album wasn't certified Platinum (one million copies in the US) until August 10, 1993.
The video was directed by Paul Rachman, whose forte was hardcore acts like Bad Brains and Suicidal Tendencies. In the late '80s and early '90s, most of the work was in hair metal, which didn't suit him, so he was thrilled when grunge came along.
The video was shot on a farm outside of Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Mountains. Staley and Rachman worked together on the concept; Staley's original idea was to have a baby with his eyes sewn shut, per the line, "Feed my eyes, can you sew them shut?" The baby was changed to a hooded caretaker, revealed at the end to be blind. Shot in black and white, it was treated in post production with a sepia look.
The murky clip became a touchstone for the genre, visualizing the music as rough, dark and organic. Rachman's next video was "Hunger Strike" for Temple Of The Dog, where he worked with two more grunge godfathers: Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell. (More in the Songfacts Paul Rachman interview.) Guitarist Jerry Cantrell sang some of the lyrics. When lead singer Layne Staley sang the powerful chorus lines like "Jesus Christ," Cantrell's voice came in with the next line like "Deny Your Maker." Cantrell did most of the band's songwriting at the time, but Staley wrote some of this as well.