Race In Fiction And Fictional Races
Shouldn’t fiction writers’ main concern be verisimilitude?
My Medium feed is in a state of unrest. Some feathers were ruffled. Some mutual blocking occurred — or at the very least mutual blocking was threatened. Opinions of third parties were offered. It’s put my mind in a spin. And the thing my spinning mind grabbed on to, is The Green Mile.
Before I get to The Green Mile though, I need to get something on record. I am a, blue eyes, blond hair, very white lady (I don’t even tan, I burn) who was born in the Netherlands and migrated to Aruba (that burning thing? Yeah it’s a struggle). I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking for all European ladies living in the Caribbean. Let alone talk for my whole race. So this whole talking for a race that’s not mine — not touching that one with a ten foot pole. Nope, not going anywhere near it.
Having characters in your fiction which are of different race or gender or both, on the other hand, that’s something that keeps me busy. That’s something I need to get ‘solved’ for myself, if I want to start taking my writings seriously.
I think a fiction writer main concern should be with verisimilitude. That’s the appearance of being true or real. It’s not realism, because fiction isn’t real. It’s not believability, because how believable are things like magic or dragons, really? No it’s, within the given rules of the created universe, how likely are the characters and their actions.
That’s how I got to The Green Mile. It’s a relatively recent (over 2 decades already? Yikes, where does the time go?) book and movie, with a important black character, written by a white man.
Oh, I should put up another for-the-record here: I love Stephen King. I love The Green Mile. I bought the six episode books as they came out, the bundled novel, and I have the movie.
Now, the Black character in The Green Mile, John Coffey, is not without it’s problems. I’m going to let Mr Spike Lee explain for a moment, because he’s probably are more legit critic than I am.
(Read the full excerpt, and get the book here:)
Since his first feature movie, She's Gotta Have It (1986), gave him critical and commercial success, Spike Lee has…books.google.com
At the same time, Michael Clarke Duncan did not win the Oscar, but he did win the Black Reel Award for best supporting actor. Does BRA enjoy feeling liberal, too? I looked up the voting members for BRA, yes there’s some white people. There’s also a good amount of black people. Probably more, percentage wise, than in the academy. Can we conclude that plenty of black people didn’t have a problem with the John Coffey character? I’m not sure, you can take a look and reach your own conclusion:
VOTERS Motion Picture Branch Arch Campbell | Jeannette Catsoulis | Rebecca Cusey Jen Chaney | Shawn Edwards | Jamaal…blackreelawards.wordpress.com
The more interesting question; can an actor, no matter how talented, give an award winning performance playing a poorly written character? I very much doubt that.
Now for the million dollar question:
Should white man Stephen King have written black man John Coffey?
I say: Yes— ducks behind sandbag wall and straps on safety helmet — before you start throwing those rotten eggs, hear me out. It’s because of verisimilitude.
Would you have accepted this character getting this harsh of a sentence, with this little evidence against him, had he not been black? I don’t think I would have. The whole reason he got convicted of this crime he did not commit, is because of racist lawyers, judge and jury. Make him white, it doesn’t work. Write in more evidence against him, the character breaks. This story could have only been told with a black John Coffey.
As part of a trend, Spike Lee’s complaints seem fair to me. But taken as criticism of the story, they make me think Mr Lee didn’t actually read the book, or ignored the particularities of the character in order to make his point.
Some people have suggested the John Coffey character is actually Jesus. That’s not far fetched. In his novel Desperation of the same year, God himself helps out the protagonists. And then there’s the initials. But Jesus or not, John Coffey is not omnipotent. His power is healing. Use it to walk out of prison? The character can’t even use it to tie his shoes. His failure to tie a knot is one of the things that convinces Paul Edgecombe of his innocence.
And the ‘old grateful slave shit’ seems unfair to me too. Again, it’s a matter of verisimilitude. Coffey says he doesn’t want to be freed, because he is tired. A huge intimidating black man, no matter how well intentioned, in the 1930’s, tired of life? Yes, I’ll buy that.
And ‘grateful’? Heh. I doubt Mr Lee is a fan of Stephen King. Because that is not gratitude. This white man gets to live with what happened. And live with it. And live with it some more. Well beyond his years. Do we really think life is so wonderful that this is seen as a gift? Not to mention that his aging process did not stop. This point is driven further home by having the other white guy go insane. His prolonged life is a curse.
I was talking to my partner, also a King fan, about a lack of black characters in most his books, and how John Coffey isn’t even the only “Magic Negro”. Dick Hallorann also seems to exist only to help a young white boy. And he remarked something that made me cringe:
“Imagine if Kubrick had put Sidney Poitier in the role of Jack Torrence, in the Shining?
And Alex Guinness as Dick Hallorann?”
That would be a completely different film. The sad truth is you can’t really exchange black and white characters. If you do the movie changes. Not always with bad results though.
The 1968 Night of the Living Dead; Duane Jones took a role that had been written for a white guy. They didn’t change any of his dialogue, and suddenly it was a movie about Black empowerment.
Writing about different races in the same story is tricky, I wouldn’t ever deny that. Still I think we shouldn’t blame authors for attempting it. Too often writers, movie makers, story tellers, will side-step the issue of black and white and use non-existing races to make their points about oppression and equality. That way they avoid accusations of appropriation or of white knight syndrome. Perversely, these attempts often end up white washing fiction more than a slightly problematic black character does.
As much as I love Star Trek, as outstanding as their record is on matters of diversity, can anyone tell me with a straight face that this scene, featuring only white actors, is not about slavery and by association black people?
I want to point out this wonderful story by Kendra James about how a well written black character does much more than a thinly veiled metaphor. I also want to point out that the creators of Deep Space Nine, Rick Berman and Michael Piller, and the executive who requested the series, Brandon Tartikoff are all white men.
Why does Sisko work? Verisimilitude. He’s damned believable. And the character doesn’t shy away from race issues. Well, read Kendra’s article. She explains it much better than I do.
The one thing writers should do, is take care not to resort to stereo types. But, that has less to do with race than simply good writing. I wouldn’t put an uggs wearing, pumpkin spice latte drinking, white girl in any of my stories, either. No matter how white I am.