Favorite Fictional Characters, #18: Ellis "Red" Redding
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
I think we can all agree that The Shawshank Redemption is a fantastic movie. If you haven't, I strongly recommend reading Stephen King's original story, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It's an outstanding work, and a reminder that King, often dismissed as a horror schlock-meister, is one of the most talented short-story authors since Vonnegut. In any event, while the story of Andy Dufresne's wrongly-convicted banker is the central thread of the plot, Red is the cement that holds it all together. Red was written by King as a middle-aged Irishman (it was mid-20th century Maine), and filmmakers considered Redford, Eastwood, Ford, and Newman for the role before selecting Morgan Freeman, and it's now impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Freeman was known to audiences from films like Glory and Driving Miss Daisy, but Shawshank became the early signature role in his career, and his iconic narration of the movie launched his gravelly voice into James Earl Jones territory.
What made - makes - Red so compelling is his imperfection, his realism, his acceptance of the world as it is. He makes no apologies for who he is or how he came to be be where he is, he merely makes the best of it. He is utterly self-accepting. He does what he can to make things easier for his fellow inmates, but he's not a soft touch - he's a businessman. He's as surprised by anyone at his friendship with Andy, and his friend's refusal to accept reality as readily as Red does gives Red something he has tried to live without - hope. As Red says, "Hope is a dangerous thing. It can drive a man insane." That hope is what keeps Red going when he finally leaves Shawshank and finds himself unable to adjust to the world outside. Hope is the central theme of this tale, this fable, really, and it results in one of the most emotionally satisfying climaxes in cinema history.
Waking up on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I reviewed the list I'm working on for this project, and was struck by how few black characters I consider among my favorites. I'm not sure whether that says something about me and my preferences, about what kind of fiction I choose to consume, or about how popular fiction marginalizes people of color. It's a whole separate dialogue, of course, and a prominent debate now when there's a black Hermione on stage and a black Human Torch in the movies, and there's backlash for both. Somehow, nobody seems to mind that Morgan Freeman played a character written as white. I'm not sure what the answers are, whether color-change casting is the answer, or if more diverse voices among popular culture makers is the answer, or a hundred other things. But I do know that on a day like today, and probably every day, they're important questions.