To Sir Tommy Lee Jones, with Love
Virtually the only interesting thing to happen in any of the Men in Black movies (1997, 2002, and 2012) occurs during the final five minutes of the last film in the trilogy. In an odd turn, the routine buddy film clichés of the ultra hip Agent J (Will Smith) and the square G-Man, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) bickering but loving each other takes a melodramatic turn. Having spent the entire film in 1969—the climax takes place at the Apollo 11 launch site—time-travelling to undo the nefarious work of alien Boris the Animal, a younger version of Agent K (played by Josh Brolin) reveals that he has protected J all these years because of his failure to kill Boris in time to spare J’s father, army Colonel James Darrel Edwards, killed by the alien on the beaches of Cape Canaveral.
In an astonishing intertextual move, the film represents the aftermath of this trauma by restaging the final scene from John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam fantasy, The Green Berets (1968). In that film, the only Vietnam-era movie about the conflict given the enthusiastic support of the U.S. military, John Wayne proposes winning in Southeast Asia by employing the clichés of the World War II film. During the climax, his character, Colonel Mike Kirby, leads a successful mission to capture a North Vietnamese commander, but one which results in the death of Sergeant Peterson (Jim Hutton), a kind-hearted soldier under Kirby’s command who has adopted Hamchung, a young South Vietnamese boy. Returning from the mission, Kirby lands his helicopter on the beach and tells the boy about his father’s death. When Hamchung asks Kirby what will happen to him now, he takes the boy’s hand and in full John Wayne drawl, intones, “You let me worry about that, Green Beret. You’re what this is all about.” The two walk away from the camera into the distance, strolling along the beach at what is purportedly sunrise, but because of the John Wayne conventions of the Western, from a genre standpoint, is sunset, eastward over the South China Sea.
The geographical impossibility of this genre convention—Vietnam is not the Old West, despite what John Wayne might think—is partially fixed by its use in Men in Black III (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012). For now, when Brolin’s Agent K takes the young boy’s hand, it is broad daylight, on the morning of the Apollo 11 launch, such that looking eastward out over the Atlantic Ocean is geographically correct. However, the racial fantasy implied by the paternalistic Kirby and his Vietnamese charge is replicated by a similar homeland American fantasy resplendent in the bi-racial contemporary blockbuster buddy movie.
This can perhaps be best tracked via the complex star intertextuality engaged by Men in Black III. For not only is the racial integrationism of the buddy movie in full swing—the affable Will Smith has to put up with the shenanigans of the grumpy Tommy Lee Jones—but Jones’ character Agent K is split into two, both a kinder-gentler Josh Brolin in 1969 and the full-blown cynic Tommy Lee Jones in the present. Men in Black III astonishingly melodramatizes these assimilationist race politics via its casting as well as its riff on the ending of The Green Berets: it is the failure of the young K which produces the overly protective, scolding Tommy Lee Jones, who pushes Agent J as only a father would.
The fact that Will Smith embodies both the 1969 and 2012 version of Agent J is of no small consequence. While the J.K. Rowling novels use the plot of a mysteriously gruff protector, Severus Snape, who hides his paternal care for Harry Potter, Men in Black III uses this plot to demonstrate that race relations have not changed between the 1960s and the present. The very first thing that happens to Agent J in 1969 is that he is pulled over by a racist white Florida policeman for “driving while black.” The film softens and equivocates on its potential Rodney King moment, by having Will Smith explain that in this case, the fancy car he is driving is in fact stolen.
What Will Smith’s star persona accomplishes is to further fuse the historical moments, not for the purposes of a critique of racism in America, but instead of a stable centrism long since evaporated from much of the American imagination. Men in Black participates in the assimilationist cross-racial buddy film, inaugurated by Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and cinematically sealed in the post-war period by Sidney Lumet’s The Defiant Ones (1958), wherein Sidney Poitier comes to love Tony Curtis to the point that he sacrifices his freedom so that he can mammy the white Southerner as the police dogs close in on them in the film’s final images. Will Smith has become the Hollywood king of the July 4th buddy film blockbuster, from the sublime Independence Day (in which his African-American pilot and the nebbishy Jewish scientist Jeff Goldblum travel to an alien mothership to download a deadly computer virus) to the absurd Wild Wild West (in which Smith plays a dashing yet anachronistic 1860s African-American secret service agent with an almost identical scientist foil, played this time by Kevin Kline). Will Smith’s having played the false son of Sidney Poitier in the film version of John Guare’s play about American race relations, Six Degrees of Separation, only seals the argument that he is indeed the buddy film progeny of Sidney Poitier.
It is on the other half of the buddy film divide that the star intertextuality becomes really interesting. One of Tommy Lee Jones’ best early roles was as Ab Snopes in the 1980 American Short Story version of William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” broadcast on PBS. There, the narrator, Snopes’ son, must learn to run away from the horrific racism represented by his father, perfectly conveyed by the gravely voice of even an astonishingly young Tommy Lee Jones. Jones would spend a career developing that voice as signifier of his single-minded toughness, from the abusive Southern cracker that is Loretta Lynn’s husband in Coal Miner’s Daughter to the obsessive hunter in the Harrison Ford remake of The Fugitive.
The earlier Men in Black films worked to soften this star persona, seemingly incongruously by linking him to the comic Will Smith, of the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air fame. However, with Josh Brolin, coming off his astoundingly seriocomic performance in No Country for Old Men (“Where’d you get that? At the gettin’ place!”), the Agent K softening of Jones’ star persona is grounded in the melodramatics of fatherhood. All along, we come to realize, Agent K was not Tommy Lee Jones ahistorically, but instead forged out of a cross-racial debt, sworn to take over the Colonel’s role of raising the little boy on the beach into a mature, responsible adult. Given the ideological premises of the Hollywood blockbuster, whether that Colonel is Kirby from The Green Berets or from Men in Black, hardly matters. “To Sir, With Love,” indeed, but not on Sidney Poitier’s terms at all. Sir Tommy Lee Jones, now that has a ring to it that Hollywood can appreciate.
– Walter Metz