What’s wrong with the Green Mile?

Still from "The Green Mile", showing John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) being led from his cell to his executionLast night it was announced that the actor Michael Clarke Duncan, best known for playing John Coffey in the 1999 film The Green Mile, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, had died following a heart attack. Duncan had had other roles, such as in Kung Fu Panda and Planet of the Apes and was in a number of TV roles including in Two and a Half Men, but is best known for that role which got him nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. There is an obituary of him here at Time Entertainment, notes that he had given up his college place to work as a ditch-digger and bouncer to support his mother when she became ill. I do not want to use this entry to attack Duncan personally, but a number of TV networks will be replaying this film over the next few days and the film conveys moral messages which are terribly problematic for a number of reasons and which it seems some people are unaware of.

The Green Mile stars Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecombe, a governor of a Death Row in the 1930s, and John Coffey, played by Duncan, is a child-like Black man who had been jailed for the rape and murder of two girls. Coffey turns out to have magical powers, breathing life into Mr Jingles the mouse, curing the Hanks character’s bladder infection and the warden’s wife’s cancer. He does this by putting his mouth up to theirs and sucking out what look like insects from them, and then breathing them out into the open air (however, on one occasion he actually breathes them into another character in the prison who had been cruel to an inmate). It transpires that Coffey is innocent and Edgecombe tells his wife that he is afraid of going to Hell for having an innocent man executed. He discusses it with Coffey and offers to let him run away and “see how far he could get”. Coffey responded that he was tired of living lonely as a sparrow with nobody to play with and wanted it all over with (you can watch that scene on YouTube for the time being here and try hard not to throw up). So, Edgecombe goes ahead and executes an innocent, mentally disabled man with a clean conscience.

Why is this so problematic? Do I even need to ask this? The first is that Coffey is a classic example of an American film stereotype called the “Magical Negro”, a child-like black character who supports white characters and helps them better themselves while sacrificing their own needs to theirs. They also, as the name implies, also frequently display magic powers. Several of Stephen King’s novels include Magical Negro characters, as this essay from 2004 explains. The use of important Black characters for this purpose plays up to a whole lot of stereotypes about Africans and voodoo; their knowledge is mystical while ours is scientific and rational. It also assuages white audiences’ fears, showing the major Black character ultimately not benefiting from his wisdom and power but letting others do so instead. The powerful Black character is kept in their place and all is right with the world.

The use of this hoary old stereotype would be bad enough, if it weren’t used in this film to justify the railroading of an obviously innocent, mentally disabled man to death. 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. No letter to the (state) governor or the president, or trying to use his connections locally to get the guy a decent lawyer, no resignation, no putting his life or his freedom on the line to help the guy escape. Nothing. Remember, it’s not the white hero that makes the sacrifice for the Magical Negro; it’s the other way round if there is one. And an execution of an innocent man is still an injustice, regardless of whether he wants to die anyway.

And there is also the matter of what this says about our attitude to disability. Coffey has a moderate cognitive disability; he does not have end-stage MS, or motor neurone disease, has not been lying in a dark room for 15 years, and is not in intractable pain or (as far as can be told) any physical pain. Yet, still he gives the opinion that he would be better off dead and the man who has the power of life or death over him readily agrees, and puts him in the electric chair. (It seems at that time, the condemned man was executed in the same room as the audience, not behind a screen as is the case now.) The film was set in the 1930s but was made in 1999 when the assisted dying lobby was already well-established, and already assuring us that only those with conditions like those listed above will ever be candidates for assisted dying, and then strictly at their own request, yet the public response to this film shows that people are still ready to see that death is the answer to suffering, even relatively mild suffering, by a person with a disability.

Admittedly, this film is only fiction and the scenes of the man miraculously curing cancer put it out of the realm of realistic drama, but I find it disturbing that people do not react more strongly to the film’s depiction of obvious injustice, of powerful men taking the cowardly, easy way out in the face of such injustice, and of the casual way the man’s disability is used to justify, rather than prevent, his execution. The film, and the critical and public reaction to it, also conveniently gloss over the many occasions that mentally disabled, often innocent people have been sentenced to die because police and prosecutors were not picky in looking for easy results, and some have waited years to clear their names (like Earl Washington) while others have lost their lives. The Green Mile is a nauseating, saccharine film with a confused moral message about a type of injustice that still happens. I really hope that the showings of this film that are inevitable now that its best-known actor has died will be accompanied by coverage of what really happens to poor, mentally disabled men who are accused of murder in the USA. And most of them do not want to die.

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