A Quick Thought on Michael Clarke Duncan

I wanted to acknowledge the death of Michael Clarke Duncan, because it's a good thing to do and because it brought some old thoughts on how black people appear in the narrative. A lot of my African-American peers utterly despised Duncan's role in The Green Mile (right along with Will Smith's in The Legend Of Bagger Vance). I was certainly among those doing the despising, but I think it's worth thinking about the differences between community expectations and individual hopes.

By all accounts Duncan's role was life-altering in the best possible way

Mr. Duncan was born poor on the South Side of Chicago on Dec. 10, 1957. His father left when he was 5, and his mother and older sister raised him. He attended Kankakee Community College in Illinois and Alcorn State University in Mississippi, where he played football and basketball. He majored in communications, but returned to Chicago before receiving his diploma to help support his family.

Mr. Duncan worked as a ditch digger for the Peoples Gas Company, as a nightclub bouncer and even as a stripper, under the name Black Caesar. His mother, who had dreamed of becoming an actress, urged him to try acting, and he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a bodyguard for stars like Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and Jamie Foxx. That led to a succession of minor roles, many as a bouncer.

While filming "Armageddon," Mr. Duncan struck up a friendship with his fellow cast member Bruce Willis, who called the director and screenwriter Frank Darabont, who was casting "The Green Mile," based on a book by Stephen King, and recommended him for the part of Coffey. He got the part, and he then rose to what he characterized as a major challenge.

I think back on my younger self and wonder at a lot of the anger I felt Duncan's role. Some of this is in synergy with my thoughts on Girls. I think it's best not to put the weight of total representation singular ("firsts," "fews," and "onlys") figures. The only way to end that is to get to a world where roles exist in a variety that represents the breadth of the world we live in.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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