Middle Class Goodman Film White

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In 1960, the American sociologist Paul Goodman published his seminal work, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society. Having observed that, since World War II, there had been an increasing rise in juvenile delinquency – especially amongst white, middle-class, educated males – Goodman set out to study both the source and forms of delinquency. Simply put, he wanted to understand why and how young men were rebelling not just from the previous generation but from society as a whole. Goodman ultimately posited that having been frustrated by an increasingly bureaucratic and corporate culture, the only way for these young men to begin forging their personal identities was to reject the very middle-class culture and values from which they had emerged. Goodman then discovered that many of these young men began to find solace and freedom, to quote Allen Ginsberg, “by dragging themselves through negro hipster streets.” These middle-class young men – or what Goodman would ultimately label as “the white negroes” – found for themselves an entirely new cultural frontier by embracing what they felt to be the only free space available: within the bosom of black culture. The fact middle-class, white males listening to “black music” would hardly raise an eyebrow today only serves as a testament to the enduring power of blackness as a cultural trope.

Whether it be jazz in the 1950 s or hip-hop at the turn of the century, white youth have continued to find avenues of self-expression and self-formation through what Toni Morrison calls an Africanist presence. This cultural phenomenon is not exclusive to music, of course. One need not be a sociologist or anthropologist to clearly see this Africanist presence operating in the linguistic as well as aesthetic elements of popular culture today; however, a particularly fascinating and recent development in the use of blackness can be seen in recent Hollywood cinema. No longer a mere source for cultural self-realization, blackness now actively aids in the empowerment and redemption of whiteness and in no other film is this made quite as clear as it is in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Green Mile.

A period piece not unlike Darabont’s previous film, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile is also set in a prison during the first part of the twentieth century. The central character, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), is an affable guard placed in charge of Cold Mountain Correctional Facility’s death row, called The Green Mile by the prison population. As the film opens into the prison, we are meant to understand that death row, while filled with anxious tension, is also a place of isolated calm. Edgecomb and the other guards struggle to maintain a sense of tranquility so as to make the inmate’s lives not necessarily pleasant but at least tolerable. The normal rhythms of this micro-community start to unravel when John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a giant of a man and the lone black person in the entire film, is brought into the Green Mile. At first we are meant to be awed by his intimidating size only to realize minutes later that Coffey possesses a childlike innocence and demeanor.

As the film’s melodrama progresses, Coffey is revealed to possess miraculous powers of healing that cures not only physical ailments but can also enforce justice in the highest form.

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