Skip to main content

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile
(1999)

(SPOILERS) 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 that the journey you’re being take 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 rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, 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 that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative 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 practically 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% 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 that 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 that 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). Everycharacter here, barring Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) 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’ta 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 and 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 even then. 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. But while I can lay point the finger at various elements (the convenience of the actual murderer being a fellow death row inmate, as Time Out’s Derek Adams pointed out is “disappointingly tidy and trite” – the twist element I cited in the opening paragraph), I dofind 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 something out of a Tim Burton Batman plot).

So is The Green Mile guilty as charged? I may not be the 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 for movies ever. 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 wholly 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 screenplay, though, as it’s that sureness 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’s at 29 on IMDB); it’s 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 that 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 – The Majestic was around the corner, his undiluted Capra fixation proving his undoing – but also probably peak King, a path that, despite the frequent misfires, had been weaved through Stand by Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .