October 26, 2003
By CELIA McGEE
Are American moviegoers ready for “The Human Stain”?
The 2000 novel by Philip Roth, on which the film is based, angered many with its story of an eminent black classics professor who has spent his grown life passing for white. African-Americans and liberals, in particular, resented the book, which is set against the backdrop of smug political correctness at a small New England college.
In Robert Benton’s film, opening Friday, Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, the celebrated teacher who is tarred as racist after he refers to two student no-shows he’s never seen as “spooks.” They’re both African-American.
Silk, who believes the uproar killed his wife, later takes up with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a young woman on the college’s janitorial staff. “The glamorous, beautiful Nicole somehow figured out how familiar this woman is with rejection,” Benton says. “She makes her so vulnerable, it’s heartbreaking.”
But it’s the thorny and fateful issues of racial identity and secrets that give the movie its greatest heft, and sorrow. It takes a hard look at attitudes about race from the 1940s to the present, and at what has changed – and hasn’t.
“Wherever there are prejudice and preconceptions, there’s passing,” says Brooke Kroeger, author of the new book “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are.”
Anna Deavere Smith, who plays Silk’s mother in essentially segregated, pre-Civil Rights East Orange, N.J., says “The Human Stain” is “about America now, or up through the summer of Clinton’s confession [in the Lewinsky affair]. It’s about admission, about guilt, about hiding your past.”
Smith gets to utter the words often mentioned as the movie’s most breath-catching moment. “You,” the mother tells the son she loves above all else when he announces his decision to flee his family’s racial pride, his community and his given identity, “are as white as snow, and you think like a slave.”
Benton and producer Tom Rosenberg added their own twist on the constant ironies of racial stereotyping.
Allison Davis, a Chicago real-estate investor who is a golfing buddy of Rosenberg’s as well as former New York City Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis’ older brother, was cast as a white train passenger who snarls “boy” at Silk’s cultured and imposing father.
“The actor playing a white man is himself African-American,” says Hopkins. “For me that was perhaps the most telling instant.”
Hopkins was surprised to be approached about the Coleman Silk part: “I asked if they were sure, and how different I’d need to look.” But he was only given contact lenses so his eyes would match the smoldering green gaze of Wentworth Miller, who plays the young Silk; he also talked with the Princeton-educated 31-year-old to absorb some of his speech patterns. In none of Miller’s earlier work, including leads in “Dinotopia” and “Underworld,” had he played on his own mixed-race background. Going up for the first time for a specifically African-American role gave him the opportunity to plumb that experience.
“And certainly on paper, it was not something I was going to pass up – that director, those actors, a story by Philip Roth,” he says. “But I did wonder whether I’d be typecast from now on. I want to continue getting sent out for roles of any ethnicity.”
Miller refuses to pass judgment on Silk. “As an actor it’s not my job to condemn or condone my character. That wouldn’t allow for his complexities. Coleman feels boxed in by definitions, which are suffocating him, and he needs to break free. That’s something anyone can relate to. It moves the movie beyond race.”
Smith is less forgiving. “I don’t think you can reconcile Coleman’s supposed moral rectitude and the lie he has been living. The rectitude is a cover – it’s a performance for something in his background he wants to hide.”
Yet there have been those in her life who did the same. “I had an aunt who wanted to be a dancer, so she came to New York and, as they said in those days, ‘passed for Spanish.’ When I was in acting school in San Francisco, she had moved there and I went to live with her. We became very close. But I was raised to believe that life is grappling with what is given you.”
Copyright The New York © Daily News, 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. 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.