The success of Men In Black tends to cloud the fact that it remains, to this day, an exceedingly strange film. It grapples with some enormous themes – loss, xenophobia, and finding one’s place in an ever-expanding universe – all while chasing down one very grumpy cockroach with comedically tiny guns. When it’s really at its best, this is the movie’s “special sauce:” a genre-defying mix of comedy, action, sci-fi, and pointed social commentary. After 25 years, it remains a relevant film that modern audiences can enjoy not only for its laughs but also for the relatability that so many other films of this time might lack.
One of the most interesting, and often overlooked, of Men In Black‘s achievements is the way it uses this endearing combination to put us at ease while tackling the uncomfortable topic of unconscious bias and the assumptions we make about other people. Subversion of expectations is not an uncommon technique in storytelling, but in Men In Black it is constant. From the intergalactic politics expert who happens to be a pug named Frank to the impressive punch packed by one “noisy cricket,” Barry Sonnenfeld‘s film wants us to deeply feel that our stubborn instinct to judge a book by its cover is not only foolish but a threat to humanity’s survival on an existential level.
Ed Solomon‘s story of former NYPD-officer turned MIB rookie Agent J (Will Smith) and his seasoned partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) taking on an overalls-sporting bug alien begins with a seemingly routine border border patrol stop. As a seedy-looking cargo van transporting immigrants across the Mexican border is pulled over, the scene initially goes, well, how you might expect it to.
However, things evolve rapidly when Agent K and his previous MIB partner show up. They are quick to let all but one of the passengers go, and when the border patrol agent protests, Agent K does not hesitate to put him in his place. The iconic finishing touch on the scene is a notably sarcastic one-liner delivered in Jones’ trademark Texan drawl: “Keep on protecting us from the dangerous aliens. ”
From the get-go, Men In Black wants you to know that the way you may have been taught to classify people is not going to work here. There’s a through-line established of using extraterrestrials as a stand-in for immigrants and other marginalized communities and the fear with which society treats these people often simply for existing. It’s not that Men In Black is prescient, since these are issues that humanity has dealt with over and over again, but the film is able to reshape the commentary through the lense of humor and science-fiction. It offers metaphorical parallels for viewers.
Possibly the most direct commentary in the movie occurs early on, while Agent J (or Edwards at this point in the story) is in the midst of his MIB tryout, though he does not yet know that’s what it is. There’s an exercise in which the potential recruits are supposed to shoot at a series of quick-moving targets set in a dark street alley. A number of stereotypically frightening alien cutouts pop out menacingly as the other polished military-trained recruits fire like gangbusters. Agent J, on the other hand, remains still and focused, until he slowly and deliberately pulls the trigger just once. As the lights come on, we see he has shot a cardboard cutout of a young, white schoolgirl clean through the forehead.
When questioned by MIB recruiter Chief Zed (Rip Torn) as to “why he felt little Tiffany deserved to die,” you can see that his response begrudgingly earns him some points. J explains that he relates to and sees humanity in the seemingly terrifying aliens – one obviously just working out, the other clearly “sneezing,” not snarling – and does not assume their mere presence, in the absence of any suspicious behavior, renders them. a threat. Little Tiffany with her quantum physics books on the other hand …
Though this exchange is seemingly played for laughs (and it is delivered with brilliant comedic timing), J unflinchingly holds his ground, and there’s clearly some real significance to what he’s saying. It is all the more powerful coming from Smith. The scene does not only point to his observant nature and quick thinking. He is not the only young black man in the room, but we get the sense he is likely one who has interacted with the world on a deeper level. For the rest, it’s shoot first, ask questions later.
The relationship between the two main characters is also, in itself, a sort of meta-lesson in combating audience stereotypes and assumptions. There have been many reviews that box Men in Black into the oft-overplayed “buddy cop” genre, and while there are arguably elements of this in the film, this classification inherently misses an incredibly important part of the narrative. When Zed and K are first discussing offering J the job, Zed expresses a concern that he “has a real problem with authority,” to which Agent K responds, “I do, too.” Though many have labeled Agent J as the rebellious, smart-mouthed member of the duo, K gets in many of the best one-liners and is ultimately the one bobbing along to Elvis telling J he needs to let loose. Most importantly, after successfully saving the earth and finishing out Agent J’s first few days on the job, K makes a very important distinction: “I have not been training a partner. I’ve been training a replacement. “
Agent J and Agent K are not meant to be competing, conflicting personality types. The mere pairing of individuals from different generational and cultural backgrounds does not need to inherently point to friction. The two characters are rather variations on the same creative, determined, and slightly rebellious person. Though they may be different at a surface level, K sees a lot of promise and much of himself in J. Buddy-cop comedies almost always revolve around two people being forced to work together.
Men In Black is very clear on this point – K chose to work with J. Ignoring changes made by later installments in the franchise, Agent K leaves his legacy (and the fate of the world) in the hands of someone in whom he deeply trusts. The fact that many people still subconsciously fill in the buddy-cop narrative here is regrettable in that it misses the fact that this is a story in which someone relates to and sees potential in another person who is not their exact carbon copy. It’s something that is unfortunately still all-too-rare in both the cinematic and real worlds.
It’s unusual for a summer blockbuster to try to challenge the way an audience thinks in such a fundamental way. What’s even better about Men In Black is that you hardly notice it’s doing so. That’s the beauty of the film, it not only makes you think, but it acts as a reference point in popular culture. From the last shot that makes it clear our galaxy is but one tiny marble in a sea of marbles, we are asked not to fear our ignorance or insignificance, but rather wonder at it (laugh at it a little, too) and then seize a chance to look at a familiar world in a wholly unfamiliar way.