The Green Mile

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Adapted from a Stephen King
novel by Frank Darabont (the writer-director of the loathsome The Shawshank
), this film puts the unequal Forrest-Bubba fraternity in a meaningful
context. Hanks as jowly death-row guard Paul Edgecomb meets the black John Coffey
(Michael Clarke Duncan) in symbolic social circumstances–prison being "where
you see society’s malfunction" (as Buñuel said of poverty).
While Gump and Shawshank insulted political events and social
types, The Green Mile manages an air of morally conscious reverie.

Who would have expected
spookmeister Stephen King to turn out a sociological potboiler? Or Darabont
to stage it effectively? Their combined bad taste in Shawshank is not
totally absent here–the new film includes a sappy subplot with an indestructible
brown mouse representing the "indomitable spirit" of you-know-who.
Yet something basic, really heroic, sustains their story. Remember, there was
an unconquerable cricket in another prisoner’s drama, Bertolucci’s
The Last Emperor–far from his best movie and the critter idea palled
there, too. But sometimes in pop art, a bad idea is forgiven when it touches
something true. In this case, it’s surprising how much Darabont and King’s
hokiness subverts their hokiness. The Green Mile makes little sense to
me as a testimony to the eternal (The End of the Affair is more sensitive
and serious on such concerns), but within Darabont and King’s shamelessness
we find a bold, honest confrontation with America’s delusions about itself.

The sanctimony used to justify
our criminal justice system and the convenient racial stereotypes that gird
our unchanging social structures are here blown up to Macy’s Thanksgiving
parade proportions. Formidable as Michael Clarke Duncan stands, playing the
7-foot, 350-pound John Coffey, it’s impossible to condescend to him. He’s
not just a figure of animal strength or the dark unknown, he’s the size
of an obsession. It’s immediately apparent that these guards, employed
by the state, are trying to harness an illusion. They’ve pledged allegiance
to myths about black people and about white authority. Their jobs reinforce
those attitudes until John Coffey’s mystical powers make them question
what they believe.

Starting with the concept
of John Coffey (convicted to die for the murder of two white girls, but possibly
innocent), the film’s symbolism overlooks painfully real social oppression.
The film’s pop analogies to King Kong in chains go toward romanticizing
historical evidence; the Southern prison guards–with one exception–are
depicted as humane. Edgecomb walks about death row (a cellblock where the floor
is painted "the color of faded limes") with an ache, a bladder infection
that makes peeing excruciating and sex impossible. But it’s all a gimmicky
setup for when John Coffey unexpectedly pulls Edgecomb against the iron cell
bars, and places his huge black hand on the sweating, wincing white man’s
privates. The boldness of the symbolism is electrifying. It goes from the black-white
homoeroticism Leslie Fiedler examined in "Come Back to the Raft Agin, Huck
Honey" (Edgecomb has looked sympathetically upon John Coffey) to the racial
preoccupations Fiedler analyzed in The Inadvertent Epic (a study tracing
links among Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Birth of a Nation,
Gone with the Wind
and Roots). Black John Coffey (his name frequently
diminished to the even more symbolic "J.C.") exists to relieve white
people of their pain–not guilt. (Racial guilt doesn’t seem
to work in the 90s.) The Green Mile’s fable plays out the idea that
people whom society abuses will forgive and redeem it.

Typical of nonserious fiction,
The Green Mile tends to sentimentalize profound subjects. That’s
why the prison comedy Life with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence was
a better film. Life analyzed prison through its characters’ adjustment
to it, showing the enduring effects of society’s worst efforts at racial
control. But lack of authenticity is also why there’re parallels to Of
Mice and Men
in Edgecomb and John Coffey’s relationship. King and Darabont
don’t leave any situation unexploited, unsoftened. This leads to some suspicious
moments like the flashback explanation of John Coffey’s arrest while holding
the bodies of two dead white children: the grieving father punches John Coffey
repeatedly. But would the punching impulse occur before grief? Lynching would
have been instant in such a case. Certainly William Faulkner’s Intruder
in the Dust
understood those tensions better and Clarence Brown’s 1949
film of that novel gave semidocumentary evidence of lynching culture–from
anxious, angry white faces to anxious, stoic black faces.

Instead, The Green Mile
uses its lack of sophistication and probably works more popularly than Faulkner
because of it. The cultural catastrophe of Beloved’s box-office
failure suggested only that Jonathan Demme and Toni Morrison’s fable was
too sensuous, too complex on issues that now confound or alienate the popular
audience. Even Altman’s remarkable, subtly race-aware Cookie’s
is already forgotten by critics. The way The Green Mile’s
sentiments keep interest and build ideas through a three-hour running time feels
like a finger snap away from the greatness that pop art should achieve. Darabont
obviously has learned the old Hollywood humbug. Emphasizing King’s mystical
fantasy makes a difference from Shawshank’s presumed realism. He
responds to harsh reality with wishfulness, even addressing President Clinton’s
previous infamous state execution of a mentally incompetent black man in Arkansas,
and the national distress on racial stereotyping that arose from the Susan Smith
case. There’s even a prisoner named Willie Wharton (Horton).

That’s why the film’s
fable effect feels anomalous. Justly confounding Manny Farber’s old distinction
between high and low, smart and dumb filmmaking, it is both white elephant and
termite art. John Coffey’s defense attorney (played by Gary Sinise–reprising
his George Wallace enmity) contradicts his own liberalism with the cautionary
idea that "a Negro is like a mongrel–you love it, you think it loves
you." And three showcase scenes of churchlike ritualistic executions (in
the electric chair "Old Sparky") elaborate those moments of social
and moral jeopardy into what are probably the most unnerving since Oshima’s
Death by Hanging. All this exemplifies old-fashioned mainstream moviemaking
(and sentiments) being used to redefine crude, hoary social presumptions. Yes,
it solicits white guilt, but what’s wrong with that when the aim is to
provoke audience consciousness? John Coffey’s a monumental figure of noble
suffering and yet the film forces you to ask which black movie stereotype do
we prefer? Duncan as J.C., a "praise Jesus miracle" or as the boogeying
strong-arm man in Armageddon? These are not Entertainment Weekly
polling questions but issues determining humane perception.

Much of The Green Mile
represents Darabont’s continuing polemic against capital punishment and
is, predictably, simplistic and contradictory (since the narrative conveniently
pleads the case of an innocent man then handily kills off the real murderer).
It’s tied to p.c. sympathy for convicts of color (Graham Greene as an Indian;
Michael Jeter as an effeminate Cajun) but the film is best at scrutinizing the
culture’s conflicted racial viewpoints. Darabont’s coup de grace is
John Coffey’s healing and resurrection of the warden’s wife (Patricia
Clarkson). Edgecomb brings J.C. to the warden’s home in the middle of the
night to lay hands on the sick woman. Darabont attempts subtlety by first backing
away from the incident (a move that invites Mel Brooks derision) but then he
goes for it. In cinematic terms, what follows is fake. Yet it dramatizes a psychic
and social wound. All pain and hope reside here. There’s a Dreyer-worthy
look of knowing on Patricia Clarkson’s face. She stares at John Coffey
and asks, "Why you got so many scars? Who hurt you?" For a brief moment
it suggests a benign revision of the Joe Christmas scenes in Light in August–but
without Faulkner’s modernist pessimism. This is simpler, plainer, overpowering.

Spielberg wouldn’t
dare most of the things in The Green Mile even though Darabont pays homage
to the courageous Spielberg of The Color Purple and Amistad throughout.
(Unfortunately, there are bracketing scenes of an elderly Edgecomb that just
don’t work as well as Saving Private Ryan’s inspired brackets.
The actor impersonating old Edgecomb lacks Hanks’ impish-yet-moral bright-eyed
countenance.) Overall, instead of seeking white forgiveness Darabont asks for
humane understanding, but he’s stuck with his story’s most patronizing
aspect–that J.C. is more a conceit than a person. "Tell the truth
boss, I don’t know much of anything. Never has," Coffey says to Edgecomb.
Is this kindly white view of black ignorance what we call liberalism? It’s
barely acceptable. "I’m sorry for what I am. I’m tired of being
lonely, tired people being ugly to me" J.C. cries.

His last request feels very
postmodern: to see a "flicker show." And here Darabont homages Sullivan’s
where the pitiful and ignorant received the opiate of cinema. J.C.
watches Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance to "Cheek to Cheek" in
Top Hat, his head haloed by the movie projector’s light. "Why
dey’s angels! Like up in heaven!" J.C. smiles. The Green Mile
would have been a better movie, maybe a completely laudable one, if Darabont
had dared to show John Coffey’s response to Stepin Fetchit initiating Hollywood’s
scurrilous black American legacy. We live with the dread irony. Next week I’ll
examine how Denzel Washington tries to turn it around playing Ruben "Hurricane"
Carter in Norman Jewison’s brilliant The Hurricane.