Suffering for Our Cinematic Sins: John Coffey Term Paper

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Suffering for Our Cinematic Sins:

John Coffey in "The Green Mile"

While both films "The Green Mile" (1999) and "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994) have prison settings, and the same director, these two film's overarching ideological agendas stand in striking contrast. "The Green Mile" uses the Christ myth of a singular, suffering (black) savior that can redeem white society. "The Shawshank Redemption" presents a morally ambiguous notion of salvation, that all individuals must strive for on their own, even as they work together to form a more viable prison community. This film offers a more complex and morally ambiguous solution to the stresses of a corrupt judicial system that cannot be fully healed that can only be assuaged by individual rebellion and strivings for intellectual liberty in the midst of captivity and oppression.

The comfort that The Green Mile" creates in the hearts of its viewers is partly due to its setting of time and place. By setting the film in the deep, rural, old 'Jim Crow' era South, in 1935, the film creates a sense of historical impetus and the sense America has changed a great deal. Merely by not being such vociferous participants in racism, as the most racist captor of the drama, the viewer has 'come a long way,' and simply by not being bad as the villainous actors of the drama they are not complicit in the 'old' system that convicts John Coffey merely because he is place. The movie is told in a series of flashbacks as the memories of Paul Edgecomb, who is now living an old man, in a retirement home, increasing the sense of distance between the ideological past and present for the viewer.

"The Green Mile's" narrative focus is thus almost exclusively upon whites and is told in the voice of a white man. The compassionate white guards who control the fate of the central accused victim dominate the frame and focus of the tale. By virtue of the segregation of Southern society, the film must focus on whites rather than blacks, because 'that was the way things were back then,' a separated social world of blacks and whites. Whites speak for blacks in the film, as the unjustly accused black man, John Coffey, at the central of the drama is almost completely inarticulate as well as illiterate, thus allowing Edgecomb to speak for him, rather than to give voice to his own story or longings -- what ever longings he might have, for he does not speak much of freedom, and in terms of desire he is largely and comfortingly asexual.

Coffey is accused of killing and violating two children, although he seems like a child himself. He lacks for example quite intellectual competency of the man standing accused of raping a beautiful and sexually desirable white woman like the central African-America character of the 1962 s drama "To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of an intellectual or morally fallible character, like Morgan Freedman of "The Shawshank Redemption," John Coffey is purely spiritual and Christ like figure, gifted with faith healing rather than copious intelligence or even character. He is so inarticulate, he can only say when he first arrives at the prison that his name is like the drink, only not "spelled the same," rather than speak of what he has been accused of or the freedom he has lost. Not only can Coffey barely read, he barely has a presence as a three-dimensional, speaking being.

When the actor playing Coffey is on camera, his figure is physically impressive, but he does not have any memorable speaking moments, other than the gifts given by God. The most famous scene of the film, involving the ubiquitous mouse, focuses on the mouse more than Coffey's own complexity of emotions and reactions -- for there is no complexity to the character, only metaphorical significance. Coffey is so childlike even afraid to sleep without a night-light. The film's camera angles stress his physical size and the film's audio makes his voice seem even quieter than the other character's whispers.

The accusation of a black male character being like an 'Uncle Tom' saving figure to whites is hardly a slight one -- but the idea of a spiritually gifted yet intellectually empty African-American under the control of whites and unjustly captured by whites who has greater spiritual gifts than his captors seems to be an obvious parallel between Harriet Beecher Stowe's problematic anti-slavery classic and "Green Mile." John Coffey seems to exist to redeem his white accusers and captors, rather than for his own people, much less his own self's dignity. Whites clearly speak for blacks, and black save whites in the story of "The Green Mile." The backdating of the tale and the location of the tale reinforces the parallels between anti-slavery narratives told through the eyes of whites and this false accusation against a childlike black man. The age-old Southern setting even suggests in subtle implication that unjust accusations of blacks do not occur today in the North, or at least as frequently, as if the North were a purer place of freedom (again to invoke Stowe) rather than oppression. Just as Uncle Tom was like Christ for Stowe (only without the discomforting preaching about the high made low as well as the low being made high) the mute, faith healing Coffee function as such a Christ like figure in the pageant of "Green Mile," saving his white captors from damnation from the racism of their day. The white protagonists of "The Shawshank Redemption" were also imprisoned, next to their black brethren, and had to morally wrestle with themselves and the despair created by the prison environment that afflicted prisoners and guards, black and white. Coffey feels no despair; he only saves despairing white guards.

The film even has a kind of Simon Legree or 'devilish' figure, that of Percy Wetmore. Wetmore is so loathsome and devilish; he even chooses his assignment on death row. He states he wants to see a man be electrocuted or " cook up close," even though Percy's aunt is married to the governor, and Percy could have any state job he wants. In the figure of Percy the film has it 'both ways' -- Percy is incompetent and cruel, yet has his job because of patronage and a corrupt Southern system. Only a madman or a desperate man would actively choose such an unwelcome assignment. Percy is both crazily cruel and an indictment of Southern politics of 'way back when,' where who one was determined one's placement, rather than moral or occupational competence.

The men who do not have a hand in constructing the system, such as the everywhiteman Tom Hanks character, are far less sanguine. "We think of this place like an intensive care ward of a hospital," the Hanks character Paul Edgecomb worries. He states that he worked on Death Row in a Louisiana penitentiary because it was his only job, and he had family he had to provide for in the area. The film stresses over and over again that this is set not only in the past, but during the Depression, so Paul could not find another job very easily, anywhere else in the country. But given this fact, it is difficult to believe that the Hanks character in such a setting would be as compassionate to an accused Black killer, given his occupation as a guard and his presumed upbringing in the Deep South.

The 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption" was set in the unflinching present. It had no spiritual hocus-pocus and it turned its eye upon the spiritual inner and outer struggles of both white and black characters. But in the "Green Mile," the central black character suffers through supernatural means for the sins of whites, rather than engages in his own…

Sources Used in Document:

Works cited

Edlestein, David. "The Green Mile." Film Review. Slate. 1999.

"The Green Mile." 1999. Directed by Frank Darabount. Business data available from the IMBD at

"The Shawshank Redemption." 1994. Directed by Frank Darabount.

Stowe, Harried Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1892. Available in full text at The University of Wisconsin at

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