November 15, 2003, Vol. 43, Iss. 16, p. 3
By DAVID STOKES
Forget that the movie co-stars award winners Sir Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Anna Deveare Smith and Ed Harris, respectively.
Forget the well-educated, upper middle class African-American family depicted in the film originally taped 18 months ago in Vancouver. The 126 minutes of film is worth watching, and ultimately provokes the same, if not more, dialogue as did Gene Hackman’s “Mississippi Burning” in 1988.
In the first scene of “The Human Stain,” a lone car is traveling down a desolate, snow-laden road: an appropriate introduction of the engrossing plot, yet, not an analysis of the psychological demon that cripples both blacks, as victims, and (mostly) whites who continue, in general, to value skin color as oppose to an individual’s character.
From Phillip Roth’s compelling novel of the same name arrives the tale of one black man-“passing” for white-who suffers from shame, depression, loneliness and eventual redemption upon acknowledging his true heritage. Hopkins and (biracial) newcomer Wentworth Miller are the primary characters in this biography loosely taken from the life of Gregory Williams’ father.
Williams, president of the City College of New York, and author of “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black (Dutton, 1995),” reveals the tale of a long-held family secret. Hence, “The Human Slain” absorbs and examines festering wounds of deception, guilt and self-annihilation within the confines of race.
The year, for Williams, was 1954 when his world was shattered at age 10. Father James “Buster” Williams revealed the secret that caused his family’s disintegration. His light skin enticed him to marry white, escape and “be free from” African-American life and the projects of Muncie, Ind., become a successful Virginia businessman. Seen (and perceived) as Greek or Italian, the elder Williams became prosperous and a pillar of his community. However, he possessed “many demons” that led to eventual shame and alcoholism causing bankruptcy and the loss of his family.
“I crossed the color line overnight…living in Virginia as a white boy, but going to live in Indiana’s projects as a black boy.” Gregory opined, and at She same time, learning the family cook was indeed his grandmother.
“The Human Stain” offers us Coleman Silk, dean of English and distinguished classics professor of Athena College in Athena, Mass. After being accused and terminated for voicing a racial epithet during roll call, Silk goes into justifiable tirades over “absurdity,” thus, causing the unexpected death of his wife.
As Hopkins’ Silk contemplates his life of the past 50 years, viewers are enmeshed with Miller as the young Silk, taking us hack to his conscious decisions of checking the “white” box on his U.S. Navy application or choosing to disown his black parents and siblings prior to partnering with his white spouse, along with remaining childless.
“To look so lily-white, you think like a slave,” proclaims his brown-skinned mother, portrayed by Deveare Smith. “Murderer,” she cries in conclusion, as her youngest exits for good.
(Though “Human Stain” reminds you of Lana Turner’s “Imitation of Life,” it does not exhibit grandstanding with an ostentatious funeral or a New Millennium-style Mahalia Jackson.)
For many generations, racial “passing” has been the blot of African-American existence. Notwithstanding societal prejudices involving economics, health and wealth, blacks, in becoming something contrived and unnatural, create self-imposed hardship which leads to the destruction of family and self. “Passing” has its roots when light-skinned slaves sought to “get over” to escape the life of servitude and bondage. The term, furthermore, was asserted derogatorily by family and friends left behind on plantations, or, within 20th Century literature and life, enslaved with a plantation mentality. (The conundrum has been explored in print by Harlem Renaissance novelists Nella Larsen (“Passing”) and George Schulyer (“Black No More”).
One’s interpretation of the meaning of “passing” undoubtedly evokes catharsis. Identity of self, as well as betrayal of loved ones, is the significant factor for which the phenomenon exists. Beyond professional examination of causes and remedies, “The Human Stain” offers neither, other than to suggest opportunities and success thwarted for a group of people due to skin color is acted upon by greed and freedom – even though living as another compounds life. Diabolically, “passing” has also rendered among black Americans the schism that is “light-skinned,” brown-skinned,” or “dark-skinned,” as sophomorically addressed in Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and “Do The Right Thing”.
A personal aside from “Human Stain” recollects the great-grandparents who were literally, in skin tone, anyway, “day and night”. Tales of knockdown, drag-out (verbal) fights are remembered, for, even with their love and respect of one another, words of the color line would spitefully overflow. Needless to say, this space would bear someone else’s byline if not for their union.
Leaving the movie, proverbial questions, as posed by New York University professor Brooke Kroeger, do envelop one’s mind. Kroeger, author of “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” asks, does authenticity matter? How much information is owed another? When is nondisclosure lying, and more profoundly, how does lying (about your being, existing) affect the soul?
Copyright © Atlanta Inquirer Nov 15, 2003
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The Suffragents won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize, presented by the Center for Political History. See “Summer Camp Newsletters” and Facebook posts from book-related appearances. Reviews, notices, and articles about my books are under their titles here. My articles are here.
January 29: Exhibition Opening Remarks: “Women Get the Vote: A Historic Look at the Nineteenth Amendment,“New York Society Library. February 23: “Public Values in Conflict with Animal Agribusiness Practices,” UCLA Law School, Los Angeles. March 13:“ The Suffragents,” Scarsdale Woman’s Club, Scarsdale NY. March 24: League of Women Voters, Albany County at the Bethlehem (NY) Public Library. March 25: “Judges, Lawyers, and Women’s Suffrage,” Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District, CLE, NY State Courts at SUNY Albany Law School, Albany NY. May 15: “The Republican Suffragents,” National Women’s Republican Club, New York City.