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The Green Mile and Spike Lee

March 29, 2014

Stephen King’s serial novel “The Green Mile” features John Coffey, a 6’7″ giant, black, bald, sweet-hearted man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.  He has the gift of healing, is mentally challenged and sports wicked scars from beatings he’s forgotten.  Hugely powerful (played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan), he is as gentle as a lamb.Image

Spike Lee, the outspoken but never out spoken film director, claims that John Coffey is a terrible stereotype of the kindly, giant black man who suffers to help a white man.  He’s calling Stephen King racist.

Must be sad to be Spike Lee.  

Whether King is racist or not is for him to say, but Coffey is a literary character who carries more than just physical weight.  He is set up to be a man with every reason to be angry, and with his size, highly dangerous.  Lenny, in “Of Mice and Men,” is a dissimilar character.  He’s a giant, simple white man.  Although powerful, Lenny is non-threatening.  Coffey, being black, has not just his own life of scars, but a racial history of abuse.  Lenny angry would be scary, but Coffey angry would be terrifying.  He has every right to be a horror but chooses not to be.  He’s freighted with more justification than Lenny ever could be.  Is that racist or is that simple fact?

In the end, both Coffey and Lenny are killed in their respective stories by people who care about them.  In both stories it’s sad and unjust.  But Coffey offers something to his friend that Lenny doesn’t; the opportunity to overcome racial barriers.  Something Spike might disagree with.  To him, Coffey is a shallow figure that damages… something.  I don’t really know.  

As writers, we can’t be fearful of racism charges.  King’s story contrasts different kinds of racism, and though of course he lands on the side of the angels, it’s possible (but not likely) that King is a racist.  A writer doesn’t have to agree with every opinion held by his characters.  I’d hope a writer agrees with his theme, but even that isn’t required.  It was a great story, one of King’s best.  While racism was an undercurrent, it wasn’t his theme.  Nor should it be just because a black man was in it.  His story was about right and wrong, justice and injustice.  It wasn’t about a white man coming to love and respect a black man, it was about a good man recognizing another good man with a gift and in a horrible situation.

In my novel, Mr. Clark is black because… he was.  The character sprang into my head that way.  He’s wise and wonderful, not a stereotype but a–to me–living breathing character who just was who he was.  In my current novel, a character is black who doesn’t need to be.  She just is.  No statement involved, it was like giving a character red hair.  There isn’t even a hint of racism as an undercurrent.  Just the opposite.  She is who she is, standing for herself and no one else.

Spike Lee’s opinion is a minor one in the pool of positive critiques for The Green Mile.  It’s a sad one.  

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 31, 2014 5:42 pm

    Y’know, I’m having problems. This was supposed to posted on http://www.writeswithswans.wordpress.com and instead it posted here. Writing bricks and bats go there; rambling musings go here. Sorry.

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