The Unsung Hero Blogathon: Michael Clarke Duncan’s John Coffey

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The Unsung Hero Blogathon is well and truly underway. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality and diversity of the stars chosen. In case you haven’t heard, the point of this blogathon is to celebrate actors who have been neglected by The Academy. The idea is to comment on a single performance by an actor or their body of work and make a case for why they deserve to at least have one Oscar in their trophy cabinet. For full rules and information about participating click here. There is still time to get an entry in!

When I initially thought about who I was going to write about, a plethora of actors came to mind, chief among these was Sam Rockwell. Yes, this post’s title says Michael Clarke Duncan, stay with me here. Rockwell has a string of fantastic performances in his career but I thought his turn as  Wild Bill Wharton – in The Green Mile – was particularly deserving of praise. I’ve watched the film previously and, even though I went in looking for points to praise Rockwell (praise he most certainly deserves), it soon became clear that Michael Clarke Duncan was the one who truly deserved praise for his work in this film.

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Michael Clarke Duncan began his acting career in 1995. His first few performances were often uncredited or were non-speaking roles and Duncan perpetually appeared as a bouncer or some other form of muscle due to his large, imposing stature of over 6 feet and 300 pounds. In 1998 Duncan was cast in Michael Bay’s space blockbuster Armageddon where he become friends with Bruce Willis. A friendship that led to Duncan’s casting in 1999’s The Green Mile as John Coffey – the most critically acclaimed role of his almost twenty-year career.

Duncan stars as John Coffey – a simple-minded, giant of a man who is accused of murdering two children after he is found holding the bodies of two little girls and covered in their blood. From the onset it’s clear that the character of Coffey does not suit that of a man who would willingly harm a fly let alone murder two innocents. Coffey is sentenced to execution and finds himself serving out death row in a prison block run by Paul Edgecomb (played masterfully by Tom Hanks). As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Coffey isn’t all that he seems and the crime he’s accused of was falsely placed on his shoulders.

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To make me shift focus from Sam Rockwell to you is one thing but to steal scenes from the legendary Tom Hanks is something quite remarkable; Duncan’s stunning performance in this film manages to do both effortlessly. There’s an inherent juxtaposition to the character – Coffey is (physically) a larger-than-life figure but his demeanour is that of a small child with no strength at all. Duncan’s physique is apparent and his challenge in this role was to diminish that and make his character humble and endearing. Duncan does this with absolute class. I marvelled at how he managed to shrink Coffey right before my very eyes and made the character’s spirit more imposing than his physical stature.

There’s a youthful exuberance and child-like innocence to Duncan’s performance that makes it impossible for you to take your eyes off him. He shows a complete control and understanding of the character. Yes, the child-like mannerisms of Coffey in contrast to his hulking size are easy to notice but there’s an added level of depth to the character that Duncan provides. As the film goes on and we learn about the supernatural qualities that Coffey possesses, we come to understand the true nature of the character. At first Coffey strikes us as a child trapped in a man’s body – he seems naive and idealistic. In the end we realise that Coffey carries with him great sadness. His guileless demeanour is one not formed by ignorance but rather knowledge. He’s seen the brutality of the world, the darkness within humans but chooses to focus on the light.

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This point is wonderfully expressed in one of my favoutire scenes of the film. It’s revealed that Coffey is innocent of his crimes and that he has the ability to heal the wounded. So when he was found with the two girls’ bodies, it was because he was trying to save them. Unfortunately, there’s no way to prove Coffey’s innocence and his execution has to be carried out. In a moment of uncertainty, Tom Hank’s Paul Edgecomb comes to Coffey for guidance. Coffey’s answer to him highlights everything I loved about Duncan’s performance. It’s a poignant moment but one handled with care and a light touch that reflects the mastery of Duncan’s acting.

Paul Edgecomb: On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job? My job?

John Coffey: You tell God the Father it was a kindness you done. I know you hurtin’ and worryin’, I can feel it on you, but you oughta quit on it now. Because I want it over and done. I do. I’m tired, boss. Tired of bein’ on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we’s coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?

Paul Edgecomb: Yes, John. I think I can.

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Duncan went on to become a huge movie star appearing in several blockbusters. These roles were often comedic or saw him playing a titanic action hero. He did well for himself but I don’t think he was afforded the opportunity to return to the level of acting he achieved in The Green Mile. Maybe he chose to avoid dramatic work or maybe there weren’t roles like that for a man of his size and stature. Whatever the reason his performance in this film remains his most celebrated and my favourite. I’m not saying the guy who actually beat him out (Michael Caine in Cider House Rules) didn’t deserve the Oscar but hell, Michael Clarke Duncan did something special in The Green Mile. 

 

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