Twenty years ago, Columbia Pictures debuted a bizarre sci-fi twist on the buddy cop genre starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as government spooks covertly policing the hordes of extraterrestrial refugees and immigrants quietly living among oblivious Earthlings. Men in Black owned the summer '97 box office with its unique premise, charismatic cast, and groundbreaking effects.
And buried within all the chromed out rayguns and shots of Will Smith asserting his coolness was a surprisingly progressive parable about the benefits of a compassionate approach to immigration policies.
Today, America finds itself with an executive branch that ascended to the White House, in part, thanks to fearmongering about immigrants. This rhetoric is easier said than codified into law, and, now in power, the Trump administration is tied up the federal court system with its attempts to enact potentially unconstitutional refugee bans. That said, Men In Black premiered in an era fraught with its own constitutionally-questionable approaches to immigration. Chief among these was the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. The controversial act elevated misdemeanors like shoplifting to deportable offenses, permitted indefinite jailing before trial, and later added a provision that allowed the use of "secret evidence."
Since MIB's release, America seems to have doubled down on its anti-immigrant tizzy. So, what better a time than this anniversary to see what lessons might be gleaned from a movie that momentarily tricked the world into thinking agency bureaucrats are cool.
The film wastes no time in laying out its thesis. The opening scene has the suited agents root out an intergalactic stowaway hiding aboard a truck full of Spanish-speaking humans, presumably crossing the border illegally. The people journeying to America for a better life are treated with dignity and warmth by Tommy Lee Jones's K, who has bigger fish to fry. The alien immigrant turns violent when confronted and K is forced to neutralize him as a last resort.
As we learn more about the secret agency and the role it plays in both the world and universe, the subtext of this first act encounter crystalizes: Immigrants will come, one way or another, and we'll handle the few bad apples when they pop up.
Like real world immigrants, the alien immigrants of MIB aren't always paragons of virtue. They're just as likely to engage in lying, stealing, and minor rule-breaking as everyone else on the planet. "Most of them are decent enough, they're just trying to make a living," K tells new agent J (Will Smith) before pulling back the curtain to reveal all the incognito alien taxi drivers, newsies, and other hardworking background players helping the world chug along.
Throughout the film, the MIB show a respect and appreciation for the various alien cultures they encounter that goes beyond requisite practical knowledge. Both their work and society benefits from this thoughtful approach. In the film, it's revealed that microwaves are a secretly alien technology. Were Earth not so inviting we might all be stuck with longer cook times. As the USA becomes less of a destination for scientists, engineers, and other high-skilled migrants due to increasingly hostile immigration policy, what world changing inventions do we stand to miss out on?
Most of the reverence toward extra-terrestrial culture is displayed by K, an ends-justify-the-means sort of agent. K's service to the spirit rather than the letter of the MIB law results in a well-meaning but archaic standard operating procedure. It's a personal code that has him resorting to enhanced interrogation techniques, without so much as batting an eye, and later turning a blind eye after hearing the extenuating circumstances that caused an alien refugee to travel beyond the limits of his confinement zone.
J, representing the younger, idealistic, and often themselves minority workers of modern immigration enforcement, has little innate anti-alien prejudice to overcome. While other recruits fire indiscriminately at extraterrestrials in a shooting range training exercise, J carefully assesses each potential threat before finally making one surgical shot. Perhaps he's drawing from his own experiences of harassment and presumed guilt while growing up an African American in NYC. Perhaps he's just a damn fine cop. Whatever the backstory, J's case-by-case approach to ascertaining threats and refusal to cave to mob mentality fear is what initially earns him the agent position and ultimately proves to be a key asset to the success of his later in the film.
The assumption that a more humane approach to real-world border policies would somehow result in diminished vetting practices or lead to inferior immigration workforce is also dismantled by the film's agents as they carry out their assignment. Fully aware of the cataclysm that will befall Earth should the lone alien terrorist slip through their fingers, the agency handles its business soberly and with relative professionalism. In short, the MIB's compassion and respect towards alien cultures in no way lessens how seriously they take their jobs or how willing they are to terminate with extreme prejudice when a situation calls for it.
In truth, the US was doing a thorough job vetting its incoming refugees before Trump's rhetoric changed the conversation. No Americans have ever been killed in a terrorist attack carried out by refugees who've gone through this stringent process. Calls for "extreme vetting" or sweeping bans don't just fail to reduce the already nonexistent risk to Americans, but also impugn the work of the employees already doing a bang-up job. The Men in Black carry out their work thanklessly and autonomously, with no oversight from another government agency. They do this not out of a lust for absolute power, but because they know how easily manipulated and weaponized the general population's fear of the unknown can be. "A person is smart," K lectures. " People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals." In the real world, we have the opportunity and imperative to disprove K's cynical outlook.
Despite what some might want, there will never be a perfect line of defense able to protect us from every evil deed. Faced with this reality, we can choose to shut others out, diminishing ourselves in the process. Or, we can opt to emulate the fictional secret agents, welcoming the riches that come with diversity and operating under the presumption of an immigrant's innocence until give a reason to believe the contrary. Or as J succinctly puts it, "Don't start nothin' and there won't be nothin.'"
And if this hot take on a 20-year-old action movie somehow hasn't forced you to reevaluate your entire stance on America's approach to refugees and immigrants, that's fine too. We might all just be insignificant specks in some alien's game of marbles, anyway.
Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.