The Green Mile

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    Adapted from a Stephen King novel by Frank Darabont (the writer-director of the loathsome The Shawshank Redemption), 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 Fortune 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 Travels 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.