The Green Mile
There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist). It’s sure, measured and precise, certain the journey you’re being taken on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way).
But. The Green Mile has reasonably come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, simultaneously served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue Stephen King’s magical realist tale flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his sacrificial plot function – and it does, but it isn’t for nothing that The Green Mile has been singled out for parading the device in its most unreconstituted form.
Although he namechecked Duncan’s character, Spike Lee focussed on The Legend of Bagger Vance in his lecture regarding Hollywood’s ongoing fascination with the “super-duper Magical Negro”; Coffey is nevertheless nigh-on the dubious trope’s poster boy (“So enlightened and selfless is he that he has no desire to gain glory for himself; he only wants to help those who need guidance…which just happens to mean those who are traditionally viewed by Hollywood as better suited for protagonist roles, not, say, his own oppressed people” as TV Tropes defines it).
King’s writing has been identified as displaying an ongoing fascination with the device (“there is a 99 percent chance that whatever black character appears, be they magical or not, their presence will serve only to enhance, advance, save or develop white characters”), and it’s notable that King himself cited The Green Mile as probably the most faithful adaptation of his work (at that point, anyway). He has defended his choice by stating he only made the Coffey black because it would leave no doubt that he would have been sentenced to death, given the time place and setting. But it does rather raise the question of whether Darabont was given pause over navigating such potentially treacherous waters without amendment.
To which, I’m doubtful you could address the concerns over Coffey’s character without fundamentally changing the narrative. You could feasibly make him the protagonist, but the whole point of the Christ analogy is to raise him up, to make him untouchable and unknowable, holy and beyond mere human pettiness (so observed through the eyes of less worthy others). And you might make him white, but then you’d remove the reason he’s treated the way he is in the first place. Even if you tried to make this an Of Mice and Men type piece, you’d be stuck with having to reflect him off another protagonist, due to his “simple angel” qualities. What you’d end up coming back to is that, tactfully, you’d probably be best off steering clear of making The Green Mile altogether.
A recent revisit by Joblo levels the charge that the picture is racist through and through, while suggesting every character outside of Tom Hanks’ Paul Edgecomb and Coffey is “infinitely more interesting than our leads”. I’m not sure that’s the case (certainly to the second part). Every character here, barring Paul Edgecomb as narrator and main protagonist, is essentially as unfiltered as Coffey himself. Thus, the best you could say is that, while he is defined by the rule that “you never get to know those characters and their interior lives or anything like that. They’re there to serve a purpose“, he’s not alone there.
The prison guards are all caring saints, except for the ones – the one, Doug Hutchison – who aren’t. Who are utterly evil. The death-row prisoners are all “characters”, likeable in their own ways, except for the ones – the one, Sam Rockwell, playing a blinder – who aren’t. Even the mouse is a miracle of lovely mousiness. This isn’t a subtle film, but it isn’t designed to be, and comparing it to The Shawshank Redemption for lacking realism, besides being absurd, as Darabont’s first film is hardly a bastion of that, is rather missing the point.
One review suggested “Hanks’s character has a crisis of conscience, confiding in his wife that he is afraid of Hell, but only lets Coffey persuade him that he is tired, finds the world a painful place and wants to die. And that’s it. He’s off the hook; no great moral stand required”. Which is a valid point; in the framing section, Edgecomb suggests his punishment is to live a (potentially very) long time, but that section never feels entirely earned; it smacks of Spielbergian self-importance (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) rather than being essential (Darabont even goes as far as providing utterly extraneous exposition telling us all just how the magic here works).
A few have defended the picture’s choices (“Many people might call The Green Mile a racist stereotype, but if you put the pieces together i.e. the time, and place of the movie and put a Black giant with some type of developmental disability you’ll see that you’re not far off from the life of Black developmental disabled in the south back then”), but there remains the problem of how the picture is positioned, rather overpowering those factors that might be argued to ameliorate it (the Christ parable, the presentation of the picture’s singular black character).
I’d rather recognise its thorny elements – ones I know I didn’t, like many, consciously process on first viewing – while averring that I nevertheless find the picture dramatically compelling and emotionally persuasive. The Green Mile is a problematic picture, but it’s no less a well told picture for its dubious tropes and intentionally overplayed and crude elements (capital punishment is BAD via a beyond grisly horror movie execution). Thomas Newman’s score also reflects the lack of nuance, very much a copy-and-paste of his work on Shawshank, right down to the rapidly annoying, self-conscious quirkiness of the more light-hearted scenes.
I can point the finger at various suspect plot elements, such as the convenience of the actual murderer being a fellow death row inmate; as Time Out’s Derek Adams noted, it’s “disappointingly tidy and trite” (this is the twist element I cited in the opening paragraph). And yet, I do find satisfying the rather functional manner in which Coffey arranges the guilty party’s punishment while rendering Percy incapacitated (possibly neither of which are very Christ-like; Percy, in particular, being asylum bound seems like something out of a Tim Burton Batman plot).
So is The Green Mile guilty as charged? I may not be the ideal person to judge, but I’d tend to the view that, if anything, it manages to miss the wood for the trees, Darabont having the best of intentions but failing to think things through in the name of eliciting a viewer response. The Guardian suggested “for all its cunning confounding of expectations and provoking of emotions, it’s not at all clear what, if anything, the film is saying”. Darabont fessed up to knowing what he was doing dramatically, but whether that means he understood the implications of the underlying messages he was sending out is debatable: “Every frame of every movie is an attempt by the artist to manipulate the perceptions or emotions of the viewer. The point is, do you appreciate the manipulation or resent it? Do you notice it, or do you completely, blindly give yourself over to it?”
The Guardian again: “The Green Mile inhabits a soothing dream world in which audiences can experience strong yet vague feelings and leave the cinema thinking life is beautiful”. And that’s absolutely the case. And, if you like, a testament to Darabont’s skills as a filmmaker. Or a condemnation thereof. It’s operating in the same territory as Shawshank in that regard (while not being nearly as accomplished overall). The film drew me in on this visit in exactly the same way it did whenever I saw it last, despite misgivings over some of its choices (and yes, I could have lost the framing device, and it could have probably have happily forfeited several subplots, but it’s this quality, of immersing you in a world at a stately pace, that is key to its effectiveness).
The Green Mile was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, in a year proclaimed by many as the best ever for movies. I doubt I’d agree with that assessment (1998, for one, is far superior), but it’s certainly the case that “the cream of the crop” (as designated by critics) weren’t accurately reflected in the Oscar nominees. The Cider House Rules was generally regarded as a filler vote, The Sixth Sense the populist one, and The Insider and American Beauty (at the time) the bona fide quality choices.
Michael Clarke Duncan was eclipsed by another Michael, in one of his least interesting performances; whatever one’s view of the stereotypes Coffey may be servicing, Duncan’s is an undeniably powerful performance. Most reverential Screenplay adaption got a nod too, as did Sound; I’d argue Darabont should have received a nomination for his direction rather than the screenplay, though, as it’s his sureness there that remains most impressive.
The Green Mile’s awards recognition, I think, reflected the rising stock of The Shawshank Redemption in the interim (also nominated but going home empty-handed), and that this was a good, solid meat-and-potatoes (supernatural) drama, if far from the kind that truly merited such honours (of course, it wasn’t far off being as beloved as Shawshank by the public; it can be found at 29 on IMDB). Its very quality of suggesting films of yesteryear earned it the respect of the Academy.
One might argue such a thing would not happen now, as its less politically and racially sensitive elements would see it dismissed before the nomination stage. But then, one might also argue that’s precisely what happened this year with Green Book (I’d disagree they’re the same thing, even if they’re both green). It’s ironic that, given the less esteemed stock in which The Green Mile is now held – by critics and by extension, probably by film buffs, rather than the general public – that this was the period not only of peak Darabont but also probably peak King. For Darabont,
The Majestic was around the corner, his undiluted Capra fixation proving his undoing. With a King his adaptations path had, despite the frequent misfires, been weaved through esteemed entries such as Stand by Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption.