Forget the Past: MEN IN BLACK and Neutralising History

If we are great at one thing as a collective human species, it is forgetting our own history, often by choice.

It is easy to forget how Men in Black, one of the breeziest, cheeriest examples of B-movie science-fiction updated for a big-budget late-1990’s audience is built on one of the darkest and more sinister aspects of American folklore, urban myth and conspiracy theory. If you’re over 35, chances are you fondly recall the days when Will Smith was at his jaunty, Fresh Prince-coasting heyday as one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, laying down hugely popular and catchy rap tunes to fun, explosive tentpole movies or, as in Independence Day, greeting an alien invader with a right hook and a pithy “Welcome to Earth!”. Building a franchise around Smith as the hip, young, cool streetwise guy who becomes a ‘galaxy defending’, super slick government agent made a world of sense, and serves as the perfect way to cloak how disturbing the legend and myth behind it all is.

In reality, the legend of the ‘men in black’ is one of the most pervasive and ongoing representations of an oppressive, repressive American underbelly which wants us to forget the sins of their forefathers.

1997’s Men in Black franchise-launcher, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, was adapted by Ed Solomon from the graphic novel series by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers which establishes the central premise – the Men in Black as a secret government department tasked with protecting an unaware public against extra-terrestrial threats.

Cunningham & Carruthers premise completely rewires the established folklore about ‘men in black’ which became ingrained in American conspiracy culture, and principally UFOlogy, from the late-1940’s and particularly into the 1950s and 1960s when interest in UFO culture existed at its post-World War 2 highest. In urban myth, ‘men in black’ are sinister agents working on behalf of conspiratorial forces who harass and threaten witnesses of UFO’s or extra-terrestrial contact—including alien abduction. So goes the legend, ‘men in black’ would turn up unexpectedly at your home in crisp black suits and warn people against talking or further investigating the paranormal experiences they may have experienced. They might be working for a government department of some kind, or they might even be aliens themselves. They have been described as having “exotic features” or even serving as demonic, folkloric representations of Lucifer himself.

James R. Lewis describes them as being amenable to folkloric analysis in his book The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds:

They have parallels to strange people who come into contact with monsters. Peter Rojcewicz sees both resemblances and differences between the descriptions of the “men in black” and more traditional appearances of the Devil. He raises the question whether the visits of the “men in black” can, at times at least, be considered a kind of psychological drama.

What is interesting about this analysis is how often it seems to be developed within popular entertainment.

The ultimate, principal villain of Lost is known only as the ‘Man in Black’, an ancient figure who exists inside a quasi-Biblical, Kane and Abel story about quarrelling brothers in a God/Devil allegory, with the mysterious Island as a veritable Eden. Similarly, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series–arguably an inspiration for Lost in some respects–has a Devil-like supervillain named the ‘Man in Black’. Consider alien villains the Silence in Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who, a menacing religious order who people forget the moment they come into contact with them, dressed in the accoutrements of the American government agent; indeed when first we meet them it is in The Impossible Astronaut in the Season 6 revival show, set in the early 1970’s and featuring a pre-Watergate President Richard Nixon. Most recently Project Blue Book has revived many of these theories in a 50’s/60’s set show revolving around real-life UFOlogist J. Allen Hynek, fictionalising his cases as part of a grand military industrial conspiracy to keep the public unaware of alien life.

We may find no such concerns about the Men in Black organisation from the film series at least representing any kind of nefarious, even Devilish aspect. Quite the reverse. Smith’s green Agent J is indoctrinated by the quintessence of assured expertise in Tommy Lee Jones’ legacy Agent K, playing a frothy, science-fiction variant on the kind of gruff, seasoned veteran we saw him essay in pictures such as the big-screen remake of The Fugitive in 1993, as US Marshal Sam Gerard; indeed Jones would reprise that role just a year later than Men in Black in the tepid US Marshals. It said everything we needed to know about the casting of both Jones, and Smith. Though two diametrically opposite men in race, background, history and approach, they are virtuous American heroes protecting their country—and their entire world—from threats to national security.

As an inverse to the folklore behind the ‘men in black’, this is quite remarkable, particularly how hard the film, script and indeed Smith’s catchy musical number we probably all know the words to by heart, works to convince us that Men in Black should not be taken seriously, even when it is crammed with the kind of sinister ideas and affectations portrayed very differently elsewhere.

Take the very concept of the ‘neuralyser’, for one thing. A device which Men in Black Agents use to wipe clean the memories of ordinary citizens after questioning them about their contact or experience with extra-terrestrial life, at which point they implant a new, replacement memory for what they witnessed while the person is under a level of hypnosis. It’s best explored via how K uses it on Dr. Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino), only for J to keep stopping him midway. “That thing is gonna give her brain cancer or something!”. The fact Laurel ends up becoming an Agent herself by the end of the picture seems almost designed to ameliorate the breach of civil rights deployed upon her by these ‘heroes’ but you have to wonder just how virtuous an agency is who go around wiping minds with abandon, even if they do consider it protecting humanity from secrets they couldn’t process. “Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.” J asks and K replies. “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Men in Black, a few points of J’s surprise or concern about the agency’s methods while he’s still training aside, never really gets into these thorny questions about ethics and conspiracy. It plays many of them for comedy. It taps into every UFOlogists fear essentially for laughs. There *is* a secret cabal who made contact with alien beings during the 1950’s out there running things. Men in dark suits *do* routinely prevent the public from learning the truth. Tacky tabloids like the National Enquirer are actually *full* of truth as opposed to the respected broadsheets. The world you have heard a thousand conspiracy theorists claim was true, only to be laughed at, is real. All of it. Except we’ll never know. For our own protection, the Truth with a capital T must be kept from us. We don’t have to worry, however, as we have the Men in Black to keep us safe. They’re not here to lie or steal our memories, they’re the vanguard against threats we can’t even imagine. If only they had been around a year earlier during the events of Independence Day, eh? Remember, as Smith sings, “The good guys dress in black, remember that…”

It feels strangely like a counterpoint to the kind of returning paranoia that crept in during the 1990’s. Men in Black, the source graphic novel, was released at the turn of the 1990’s, a few years before The X-Files grew from cult hit to global phenomenon and helped kickstart a resurgence of interest in conspiracy theory, UFOlogy, and B-movie science-fiction that by 1997 was well underway. The X-Files, when Men in Black aired, was still the biggest thing on television – it too would have a movie in Fight the Future just a year later, and in 1998’s Season 6 premiere The Beginning, truth-seeking hero Fox Mulder would claim to not have seen Men in Black when an FBI panel ask if his latest alien finding resembles something from the film. “Well it’s a damn good movie” the FBI Director throws down as an aside. That feels particularly tongue in cheek from writer Chris Carter (who also has Mulder urinate on an Independence Day poster in Fight the Future), as one suspects Mulder would have a real problem with the Men in Black as an entity. They would represent everything he fights against in his quest – the erosion of American memory.

Truth is that you’ve seen the “men in black” in every episode of The X-Files that features a shady government agent conspiring to prevent Mulder (and his dogged partner Dana Scully) from exposing the truth about extra-terrestrial life. Their arch nemesis the Cigarette-Smoking Man is the *ultimate* man in black (he also has clear Devil connotations himself as the series wears on). Not that The X-Files was above lampooning the idea of the “men in black” itself; one only needs to look at Season 3’s Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ which has wrestler and politician Jesse Ventura and game show host Alex Trebek portraying the classic, folkloric version of the legend for comic effect (Trebek was originally meant to be Johnny Cash, in what would have been a fitting cameo). Other shows around the same time had worked to play these broader alien conspiracy theories for comedy – look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and its Season 4 episode Little Green Men, which explicitly canonises the Roswell incident as a time travel accident by three knockabout comic alien characters.

Yet this doesn’t change the fact The X-Files builds its entire conspiracy on the sins of previous American generations being buried from the people – collaborations with former Nazi scientists, radiation and virus tests, experiments on innocents. The X-Files presents a secret cabal of heinous, old white men who covered up misdeeds that would fit more in the history of Nazi Germany than post-war America, but in truth their Syndicate of genocidal conspirators would likely employ a variant on the Men in Black organisation to do their dirty work. It only takes a slightly altered lens to see J, K and the rest of them in a far less heroic, far more sinister light. Is Men in Black trying to re-characterise the government agent as a heroic force for good at a point where public distrust in agencies had risen again during the Clinton years, thanks in no small part to shows such as The X-Files and its imitators?

Perhaps we should go back to Will Smith’s song as a further indicator. “The title held by me, MIB, means what you think you saw but did not see” which further makes the point – we may be heroes but you, the public, will never know. “But trust me, if we ever show in your section, Believe me, it’s for your own protection, ‘Cause we see things that you need not see, And we be places that you need not be, So go on with your life, Forget that Roswell crap.” Men in Black reinforces the idea that we should forget our history, forget the deep rooted ideas that existed pre-JFK and were exacerbated after Watergate that our government institutions were working against us, and trust that the men in suits who “walk in shadow, move in silence” are operating in our best interests. When they are represented by a friendly, charismatic figure such as Big Willie, how could we *not* trust in them? It explains why, in the brand new sequel Men in Black: International, our two new MIB heroes are the immensely charming (and attractive) buddy pairing of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson.

So the next time you watch Men in Black, and skip it’s lacklustre sequels (International is looking like it’s on a par, quality wise, with the poor MIB II), stop and consider the world it plays for comedy, the world it wants you to forget. “Here come the Men In Black, They won’t let you remember”.

Now just look right here for me for a second…

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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