In the film Green Mile, different sociological theories and concepts can be useful in considering how societies rule our behaviors in life within different cultural places and times. A theory developed by sociologist Emile Durkheim known as the functionalist perspective profoundly applies through out the film. Concepts that are also seen in the film includes: human agency, norms, folkways, mores, and master status with a few theories and concepts of deviance.
Green Mile is a movie adapted from a story about the lives of a few guards on duty in death row. The story leads up to the execution of a wrongly accused man that has a spiritual gift that permits him to perform extraordinary feats as he heals the wounded or sick. Paul is the main character in the story and his narrative leads the viewer through a narrative-a type of flash-back as he tells of his experience to his friend Elaine. Paul is in old age living at a retirement home many years after working as the head guard on Death Row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in the State of Louisiana. Paul was a skeptical prison guard whose faith and sanity had deteriorated after many years of walking men down the “Green Mile” to their deaths by execution. They called it the “Green Mile” because the linoleum floor that led to the execution chair was green. Paul’s life would forever be changed by one prisoner in the 1935 depression era. Paul and the other death row guards developed moral dilemmas with their profession as they discover one of their prisoners, convicted of brutally murdering two 9 year old sisters, has an extraordinary gift that, in words, is unexplainable. This gifted, but seemingly harmful man is John Coffey. As he enters the “Green Mile” the guards are complete taken by the paradox of his massive size and soft-spoken manor. He is a black man that is nearly eight feet tall with hands the size of a cast iron pan. Although, John’s size could indicate that he could kill just about anyone, his behavior contrasts his appearances. Paul begins to find it odd that John is accused of murder because of his purely naÃ?Â¯ve personality and his horrifying fear of the dark. Paul and Brutus, a sympathetic guard, along with Percy (a conceded, immoral, and violent guard) as well as the warden, begin their journey of extraordinary experiences with John Coffey that involves an intelligent mouse and the healing of the sick and wounded. As another prisoner, William Wharton, known as Wild Bill, enters the green mile, disorderly effects begin to take place. John Coffey warns the guards that Wild Bill is a bad Man.
Order theorist Emile Durkheim is a sociologist who provided the functionalist perspective about society needing to be defined as stable, cohesion, consensus, cooperation, socialization, integration that creates functionalism. Human agency refers to the fact that individuals are actively shaping social life by adapting to, negotiating with, and changing, social structures. The functionalist perspective sees these as the key to any society with a high degree of consensus and cooperation. Furthermore, Durkheim states that equilibrium must be developed through integration and order; integration meaning that individuals should follow their societal norms and values while becoming a responsible member of the society. This is part of the consensus moral that Durkheim believes to be needed in order to achieve and sustain order.
Order is the second part. The formation of functionalism involves norms, social roles, and cooperation. In other words, everyone should and must cooperate with the social roles and norms that are expected of them for unity in their own society. For those who do not cooperate with the societal norms, punishment, often in the form of incarceration, is often the fate of the offender, for example. Further, Durkheim believes that the problem lies within the individual rather than the society and, therefore, should be rehabilitated and reformed to comply. A functionalist perspective on deviance has three functions: first is to affirm cultural values and norms. The second is responding to those cultural values and moral boundaries and the third is responding to these values and boundaries are what bring people together. This is known as social solidarity.
Moreover, Societies are held together by both consensus with values and coercion. The functionalist view is that the balance of harmony among the society is held up by societal institutions. For example, schools, church and family are seen as the most significant foundation for an adequately functional society.
Green Mile and Functionalism
Roles are the behavioral expectations for the people who occupy a particular social position. Paul, the other guards and the prisoners’ roles have behavioral expectations. For example, the guards must cooperate with their social roles and expectations of them for unity within the E block. Those who do not cooperate with this societal norm on the “Green Mile” are set as examples and are thus punished to provide the sense of right from wrong in sustaining the prison societal roles of its members.
Percy begins yelling “dead man walking” as he brings the prisoner into the E Block. In Percy’s mind it is his role to be portrayed as a brutal guard. He emulates a violent man with arrogance and believes that he has to demonstrate his power over the prisoners and he says and does as he pleases with little regards to others. On many occasions through the film, Paul initiates Percy’s punishments in subtle ways with the other guards because Percy does not conform to their rules and standards of the “Green Mile” staff. For example, after seeing a mouse, the guards cleaned out the padded room to find it but did not succeed. Percy enters the commons area after they had returned everything back into the holding room. Percy spots the mouse and goes wild. All the guards tell him to knock himself out because, after all, he will never catch him. Percy clears the room out and did not find the mouse.
The guards on the “Green Mile” are considered to be a primary group because throughout the film they are intimately involved in an informal fashion with each other face-to-face and have long lasting interactions; they seemed to have formed a bond that only they knew and understood amongst each other. They communicated with eye contact and body language throughout the film with an understanding known only by the other guards. Words were rarely spoken. Percy is excluded from this primary group because of his hateful and arrogant behavior which would put him in the secondary group as an existence among the other guards. He held no honor in the eyes of the rest.
Green Mile and Values
Values are the criteria that emerge for people to use in judging what is appropriate, correct, moral and important. The values amongst the guards on the “Green Mile” demonstrate that these criteria profoundly throughout the movie. For example, the guards practice the electrocution process for each man on death row before the execution takes place. In one scene they use one of the prisoners in the practice session and the prisoner makes a joke while in the electric chair and all the guards laugh except for Paul. Paul immediately pulls the values back into perspective and tells everyone to stop because an execution will take place tomorrow and he did not want anyone to remember that moment and make a mistake because the act of electrocuting offered no room for mistakes or laughter. This is a prime example of a culture and as a system of beliefs shared by group members that guides and constrains their conduct.
Societal value consensus can be seen in both the beginning and ending of this film. In the beginning, the father of the two girls is on a man hunt with fellow neighbors. As the father hears John Coffey’s screams, they all run at John and they father begins to beat him as he sees his dead daughters in John Coffey’s arms. John is then spit on by the sheriff. There were no questions asked and the trial is short. This society just assumed that John had killed the girls. There was never a court scene to show innocent until proven guilty. In the end of the film when John Coffey is electrocuted he is still the accused even though Paul and the other guards know of his innocence, they are constrained to comply with the jury’s guilty verdict and they hide their tears. This also demonstrates how cultures in different society group’s form and become established.
Furthermore, Master Status has an importance for social identity that overrides other statuses. John Coffey’s master status as a black man in the film overrode the emotions in the small town society in which he was accused of being a rapist although in the end Paul discovers that John Coffey is innocent after holding his hand and foreseeing through John the dramatic events that lead to the girls deaths by another prisoner, Wild Bill.
Labeling and Functionalist Perspective
In a biased society, assigning deviant status to an individual dominates their identities and behaviors. Those being labeled seem powerless to change because they live the identity and behavior chosen by the labeler. This is a result of systematic bias and John Coffey is a prime example of being the labeled. He was labeled a “negro” by his attorney” and in the southern culture of Louisiana in 1935, this was a doomed status. John Coffey’s attorney compared John to a dog that bit his child face and this even further plays into the three societal reaction perspectives. Society labels the individual and individual begins to identify with the label. Lastly, the individual lives with the label and John was labeled without further ado.
For Functionalists, the three functions of deviant behavior are that the individual confirms the moral boundaries. The second is this brings the group together and third is it reaffirms what is right and wrong. This is correlated well in a scene with the guards as they take John Coffey off the prison base to the warden house where John can use his gift and save the life of the warden’s wife who is diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. The guards had a previous conversation and determined the moral boundaries in taking a prisoner on death row off the prison base. This brought the group closer together because they all shared in this deviant behavior and they realized that they could loose their jobs. They affirmed the “right and wrongs” of taking John to the warden’s house. In the end John saved the wardens wife because of a deviant behavior. This, I feel, further defines the folkways and norms that are less important and, therefore, may not be well defined. Mores, however, involve morality and are considered important enough by society to merit severe punishment. If these guards had been caught with John Coffey by society they to would have been severely punished. But in this primary group society this was considered a moral decision that was justified. The guards continuously stated “What happens on the Mile, stays on the Mile”
Eitzer, D. Stanley, and Baca Zinn, Maxine. In Conflict and Order Understanding Society. Boston: Pearson Education. 1982.