“America’s peculiar `passing’ fancy: ‘The Human Stain’ never breaks out of the worn-out tragic-mulatto formula”
November 9, 2003
By CLARENCE PAGE
WASHINGTON — We are supposed to think that race doesn’t matter these days, but “The Human Stain,” this season’s biggest cinematic letdown (except for maybe “The Matrix Revolutions”), illustrates how much the races have yet to learn about each other.
The movie is about, among other themes, racial “passing,” a phenomenon that’s experiencing a resurgence of interest these days in books, novels and essays.
Passing has been occurring since the days of slavery. Mark Twain, for example, plays with the theme in “Pudd’inhead Wilson.”
Ellen Craft, born in Georgia in 1826, used her light skin to escape slavery with her slave husband William, according to a spellbinding slave narrative that William wrote. And Hollywood (think tearful melodramas like “Pinky” and two versions of “Imitation of Life”) has a history of casting white women to play light-skinned black women passing for white. The characters usually end up heartbroken and alienated from both worlds. In fact, the moral of these movies tends to be: Stay within society’s racial lines or you’re asking for trouble.
(Warning: I am now about to give away “the big secret” in “The Human Stain.” )
I had high hopes for the movie, which was adapted from Philip Roth’s novel. The book is about Coleman Silk, an aging Jewish college professor who is caught up in bogus charges of racism by his too politically correct faculty, even though he, lo and behold, is secretly a black man passing for white since he was a teen in the 1940s.
My high hopes were dimmed when actor Anthony Hopkins was cast as Coleman instead of a light-skinned black actor. I believe in non-traditional casting when it opens up opportunities for women and non-whites, so it’s only fair, I suppose, to let a white actor play a black person from time to time, if he or she can pull it off. Unfortunately, Hopkins, for all of his formidable thespian skills, failed to make me believe he had ever spent a day as an African-American. Too bad someone like, say, Bill Clinton, wasn’t chosen for the role.
Worse, the movie never breaks out of the worn-out tragic-mulatto formula. Coleman Silk remains trapped as a white man by his own ego, stubbornness and self-loathing, even while society relaxes its racial rules. He is uncomfortable in his own skin for reasons more complex than its color.
Coleman also is a black man created by white men and unfortunately it shows. The film treats passing as an expression of larger all-American themes: Ambition, rugged individualism, rebellion, etc., but it does not treat passing as a natural part of the great adventure of being black in America, with all of its complexities, joys and heartaches.
Yes, joys. When, I wonder, will Hollywood ever produce a movie about someone who seems as comfortable and adventurous with racial passing as, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can” playing the real-life Frank Abagnale Jr., who successfully passed himself off as a doctor, lawyer and airline pilot.
The late New York Times critic, Anatole Broyard, whose passing was revealed after his death a few years ago and on whom Coleman Silk seems to be largely based, apparently “passed” only in midtown Manhattan, where being black might cause his career and social life to be pigeonholed in some way. In his Harlem community, I am told by some who knew him, many African-Americans apparently knew he was black.
Yes, although you will not see it in “The Human Stain,” many African-Americans take pride in their ability to tell who is passing and have even helped keep the secret secret. Such are the interesting complexities that grow out of shared historical skin-based oppression.
Coleman Silk is not comfortable enough for that. He holds onto his secret, even when letting it out could save his career.
“Passing puts us in touch with the wondrous ability each person has to create and recreate the self …,” writes journalist Brooke Kroeger in her recent book, “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are.”
That wondrous ability resonates in America, a nation that celebrates personal reinvention through ambition, opportunity and rugged individualism.
With that in mind, a truly intriguing and instructive story for today’s world would not be yet another tear-jerker about those who have become imprisoned by the racial, socioeconomic or victim roles that they have cast for themselves (a theme “The Human Stain” treats to emotional exhaustion).
Rather, it would be the story of those who, like Secretary of State Colin Powell or Presi-dent Bill Clinton, have learned through trial and error to navigate comfortably back and forth across racial lines.
The big question, then, is not whether a white man can play a black man, but rather when will Hollywood let people of all colors tell more of their own stories.
copyright © THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 2003
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For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. March 30: TBA April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.