What do you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks”? The American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer? Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation? To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez will offer conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave will say Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam will say Hanks for Everything, Tom! At month’s end, they’ll face each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. To paraphrase Forrest: This series is like a box of chocolates. Some of them are dosed with poison.
Empathy is among the truly amazing human traits to set us apart from our fellow animals. Without that gift to feel for another person solely on the basis of our shared humanity, there could be no fiction. No books. No plays. No movies. The ability to feel emotions for others in the moment, even when we know they’re not “real,” is the core of all narrative art, the invisible fuel that makes any story worth telling.
When a great work of art sends us into peals of hysterical laughter, spasms of rage or heart-wrenching sobs, it has connected with us on that most human level — playing on our own memories of pain, joy or sadness. It doesn’t have to be a deep, artsy film, either. I straight-up wept during both Up and Avengers: Endgame. But when your emotional connection to characters is real, it’s transcendent. Many films aspire to such a connection. Even if they fall short, the experience can stick with you beyond the end credits.
Unfortunately, “many” is not the same as “all.” I’m not talking about the ones that need not try. Run-and-gun action flicks and gross-out comedies can still be great in their own right without leaving an emotional impression — good, harmless fun. It’s the other kinds of stories that drive me nuts — the ones that take a shortcut past emotional connection and go straight to manipulation. Horror that bypasses carefully built suspense for dumb jump scares and gratuitous gore, ratcheting your heart rate without ever really giving you anything of which to be afraid. Romance that never bothers establishing chemistry while relying on tired tropes and story cues to coax your brain into believing two impossibly good-looking airheads belong together forever.
Worst of all: The pretentious drama that forgoes any real humanizing of its characters but simply relies on ham-handed manipulation of big, predictable moments to trick you into feeling something that won’t stay with you. And thus we come to The Green Mile, a three-hour master class in the production of tear-jerking, but emotionless, pap — in this case with a healthy dose of smarmy, vapid acting from Tom Hanks and a truly vile display of classic Hollywood racism.
The Green Mile is set almost entirely on a prison block, specifically the Death Row of a Louisiana prison in the 1930s. Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, who, like most Hanks characters, is of course just an exemplary guard and human being. Your first clue that The Green Mile lacks any real emotional connection is right there: Edgecomb is effectively perfect. He’s kind and thoughtful. Peers and prisoners alike love him. He’s not even allowed the believable flaws of this specific period, racism or sexism that would make sense here even as they’d play unpleasant in a modern character. No, Edgecomb is somehow the most enlightened man in all of the Depression-era Deep South — basically every white man’s secret self-image sprung to life onscreen. This kind of paper-thin characterization is crucial to The Green Mile’s emotional manipulation game. If Edgecomb had any layers of complexity, you might start thinking about him and his actions. To think at all is the mortal enemy of such three-hour Hallmark cards as this. The closest thing he has to a humanizing flaw? A terrible bladder infection.
To summarize the plot makes it obvious why truly thinking about The Green Mile would be so dangerous. Edgecomb mans his block (affectionately known as The Green Mile) with the help of Brutus “Brutal” Howell (David Morse, regrettably) and under the watchful eye of Warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell, even more regrettably). The story centers on John Coffey — played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan in a turn that, sadly, is his most memorable while also being his absolute worst. Coffey is an almost unnaturally giant black man on Death Row for the brutal rape and murder of two little white girls — convicted on the spot after he was discovered holding their bodies and weeping.
I mention Coffey’s race not because The Green Mile makes any kind of statement about racial justice or the systemic problems of the American justice system — and it doesn’t even try —but because screenwriter/director Frank Darabont and the material’s original author, Stephen King (who must bear some blame here), unapologetically play on just about every tired, overdone, deeply offensive stereotype they can over the course of the film.
There’s much more on that to discuss in a bit. For now, suffice to say that nothing about Coffey’s character is new or imaginative. Coffey is quiet and gentle, but Edgecomb’s interest piques when Coffey somehow magically cures his bladder problems by laying his hands on him to absorb his sickness and then coughing it up in the form of some really bad CGI bugs. Edgecomb is amazed by Coffey’s powers but tells no one besides his wife (Bonnie Hunt). It’s like Darabont heard about the Magical Negro trope and thought it a great idea instead of an offensive travesty.
Actually, a note on that before moving on:
One truly amazing thing about The Green Mile in retrospect is how many incredibly talented actors were willing to throw away their dignity to stand around and watch Tom Hanks mug for the camera. Besides Morse and Cromwell, you’ve got Patricia Clarkson, Gary Sinise, Bonnie Hunt, Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Pepper, Sam Rockwell and even freaking Michael Jeter — or, as any of you with kids know him, Mr. Noodle’s Brother Mr. Noodle from Elmo’s World). All of that talent for Darabont to work with, and so much disappointment as a result. It’s like someone gave a chef an entire walk-in full of the finest ingredients known to man — dry-aged Kobe steaks, freshly harvested black truffles, rare pasta handmade by a group of nuns from a convent in the Italian mountains, and so on. The chef disappears into the kitchen surrounded by all this perfection and emerges three hours later — with a triumphant grin on his face and a flourish — before laying an Applebee’s cheeseburger and a handful of half-frozen tater tots on the table in front of you. The chef then stands back and waits for someone to give him an Oscar.
Anyway, back to what passes for a plot. Coffey is magic and heals some stuff. While most of the prison guards are as inexplicably perfect as Edgecomb, Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) turns out to be a real sadist, thriving on cruelty and violence in spite of Edgecomb’s admonishments. Wetmore is every bit as two-dimensional as Edgecomb — a spoiled, cruel little man with no redeeming qualities who torments prisoners with impunity because he’s got family in high places. We see Wetmore beg to be “out front” for the next execution, the one who gets to strap the convict to the electric chair and give the word to throw the switch. When a well-liked prisoner named Delacroix (Jeter) befriends and trains a pet mouse, Wetmore murders it with a stomp. Ineffectively, it turns out, for Coffey is able to bring it right back to life — much to Wetmore’s consternation and the surprise of the other guards who witness it firsthand and finally understand why Edgecomb doesn’t cry when he urinates anymore.
When Wetmore is finally allowed to be the main man for an execution, he purposely ignores part of the procedure to make it quick and relatively painless, so instead we’re treated to five or so minutes of Delacroix roasted alive by electricity while fire shoots out of his eye sockets. (Pro tip: This is not a role for Mr. Noodle’s Brother Mr. Noodle that your toddler is likely to enjoy, so maybe skip this part if you’re watching with them.) Wetmore is also repeatedly shown to be a coward, specifically in dealing with the film’s other irredeemable antagonist, serial killer “Wild Bill” Wharton (Rockwell doing his level best with terrible material).
Wharton’s character is even more useless. Besides being paper-thin, he’s really only there so we can know — beyond a doubt — that Coffey, as it turns out, is completely innocent. We don’t learn that until late in the film, when Darabont and King decide to add telepathy to Coffey’s superpower set-up — another effort to keep the audience from having to think. A decent screenplay would find ways to make the audience believe in Coffey’s innocence without explicitly laying it out. A great screenplay could make the audience sympathetic to Coffey without making him innocent at all.
But that’s the whole complex, layered character thing of which Darabont has never heard. Instead of doing any of that — instead of making Coffey someone the audience wants to believe in — Darabont offers the cinematic equivalent of a whack to the forehead with a 2 x 4. Not only is Coffey confirmed as innocent, the bad guy is conveniently right here on the same Death Row. This all leads to a ludicrous climax in which Coffey uses his powers to passively rid the world of both Wetmore and Wharton in a ridiculously pat way. First, the guards sneak Coffey out to the warden’s house in a dumb bit of caper-movie silliness so he can cure Mrs. Moores (Clarkson) of her inoperable brain tumor by absorbing it into himself. Then when he gets back, he does the cat-with-a-hairball thing again and vomits the bad-stuff flies straight down Wetmore’s throat. Wetmore goes catatonic, but not until after he empties his revolver into Wharton’s chest. Bang, bang, bang, and all the film’s bad guys are neatly dealt with, never to be heard from again.
There’s still a problem, though. Coffey is still on Death Row and will still be executed in spite of saving the Warden’s beloved wife. Why, this must be a real moral dilemma for our beloved Paul Edgecomb! Or, you know, he’ll just passively ask Coffey what to do, and Coffey will conveniently reveal that living in a world full of pain and suffering is really terrible for him and death might just be the rest he’s seeking. Bingo, problem solved! Edgecomb watches the state execute an innocent man, one he has used to suit his own purposes and whom he no longer needs, and everyone lives happily ever after. The audience is supposed to get all teary-eyed, watching this gentle giant innocently ask Brutal to leave the mask off so he doesn’t have to be in the dark while he goes. And that’s the story of John Coffey and his time on the Green Mile.
So much that’s wrong here. First and absolutely foremost, this screenplay completely humiliates and infantilizes Duncan, a talented actor, in ways that are inexcusable. This is classic Hollywood racism, the kind that refuses to allow black men or women to be real people. Coffey is presented as hyperphysical — Duncan was an impressive physical presence in his own right, and the film uses forced perspective to make him look supernaturally enormous — but not in an empowering way. He’s like an overgrown toddler, all wide-eyes and innocent smiles. Duncan’s powerful bass voice is reduced to lines like “Yassuh” and “I gots to speak to you boss,” playing directly into toxic stereotypes without even a hint of subversion. This is the real key, though, and the thing that can’t be ignored when talking about the overtly racist attitude here: It. Isn’t. Necessary.
It’s not necessary for Coffey to talk like a slave in Gone With the Wind for him to need Edgecomb’s help. It’s not necessary for Coffey to be slow-witted and childlike for us to believe he’s innocent. It isn’t a story about a particular kind of black man that might explain this reliance on terrible stereotypes — and explaining them still wouldn’t justify them by any measure. Nothing about The Green Mile or the character of John Coffey necessitates reducing the story’s only black man to a harmful, toxic stereotype except for a lack of imagination by everyone involved. It’s a goddamned embarrassment and legitimately painful to watch for anyone with any kind of conscience.
It’s not just the abominable characterization choices, either, although it starts there. It’s the fact that Coffey — an innocent man on Death Row, gifted with magical powers that force him to feel the pain and suffering of everyone around him — isn’t even the film’s main character! He’s an accessory, only important thanks to the ways he affects the white man in charge of legally killing him. This character’s whole life, the tragedy of his lived experience, the pain of the grave injustice he’s suffering … all of that exists just so we can see what a great guy Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb turns out to be. Edgecomb uses Coffey, fails to save him and, in the process, learns A VALUABLE LESSON, and that’s all that Coffey is good for. “Thanks for all the personal development, John Coffey! We white folks sure are better off. Shame you had to die, though!”
This movie is disgusting.
Perhaps the most insidious thing about The Green Mile’s racism is that it’s used as yet another club with which to beat the audience over the head. Darabont and Hanks don’t do a damn thing here to get anyone thinking about race or justice, but they definitely lean hard on the work of better films and stories to leverage that sense of unfairness to give their own movie some emotional punch. It’s literally a set up for white folks to walk out of the theater thinking “Oh, that poor black man. How terrible the past was for black people!” without giving a single passing thought to the ongoing reality of that struggle. Re-watching this garbage in a time where more people than ever seem to be waking up to the realities of racial inequality really throws the toxicity of these stereotypes into sharp relief. Racial injustice is not just a lever a filmmaker should pull to get the audience feeling a certain way. Demeaning and dehumanizing a black character just to drum up those feelings is both a lazy cop-out and actively harmful.
The racism is clearly the worst part of The Green Mile, but it’s not like sifting through the rubble yields any diamonds. This is a Tom Hanks column, and he’s guilty of more sins than just choosing to make a bad, racist movie and smirking his way through it. Edgecomb is badly written, but Hanks also doesn’t try to make things better. Maybe a little sense of self-doubt, undermining Edgecomb’s perfection on the page by letting us see insecurity creep in around the edges that culminates in a real crisis when he must decide what to do about the execution? Or go the other way and make Edgecomb’s unrelenting perfection come off as arrogance, infusing his eventual inability to do anything to save Coffey with a sense of frustration and unfamiliar powerlessness?
But no, this is the kind of movie in which Tom Hanks seems to love to star, the ones that paint with big, broad strokes and tell you exactly how you’re supposed to feel at the end. Saving Private Ryan is another one, with big setpieces and hackneyed musings on the horrors of war standing in for genuine emotion. There’s no subtlety to it, no nuance. It’s all good guys and bad guys, lines clearly drawn with every player standing firmly on one side or the other. The good guys have no flaws and the bad guys have no strengths. Sure, he’s playing the good guy, but that good guy is so bland, there’s no reason for anyone to care. In The Green Mile — and as he often does — Hanks is only borrowing your emotions from other places, better films and superior performances, giving you just enough familiarity to make you feel those things again, unaware you’re being duped.