“The Human Stain” is a flawed but engrossing story of the way that people try to escape their pasts and the way that carefully constructed new personas, no matter how scrubbed and burnished, cannot erase the stain of the original.
A classics professor named Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) lectures his students about the Iliad. He peers into the classroom to call on two who are not present. The professor asks whether they exist at all, since he has never seen them in class. “Are they spooks?”
Instead of the mild “humor the professor” chuckles he expects, he is hit with a formal complaint. The two missing students are African-American and for them “spook” is a racist epithet.
The professor responds to the charge of racism with what traditionally constitutes evidence. As a scholar, he reaches for a reference book. The first dictionary definition of the word “spook” is a ghost. But the second is a racist epithet. The professor points out that since he had never seen the students, he did not know what race they were and thus could not have meant the word to be racist.
This rebuttal might have been persuasive in most circumstances. But this story is set in the year of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, “the summer of sanctimony” after the fall of communism and before the horror of terrorism. This was an era in which quibbles about a term like “spooks” seemed more important than whether the students had actually attended class. No one speaks up in his defense. No one points to his long-time record of support for minorities on campus.
The professor has one more rebuttal, probably the most powerful of all in a world in which the self-appointed victim is allowed to define the crime. The professor is a light-skinned African-American who has been passing as white since he was in school. People are allowed to say things about their own group that they cannot say about others. But Coleman does not claim that right. Maybe he thinks it would get him into even worse trouble. Maybe he thinks that after living for 40 years as white he no longer has that right. Or maybe, as a professor of classics, he knows enough about hubris and irony and tragic flaws (and the way that great conflicts arise over women) to believe that this idiotic charge is what, in the end, he deserves.
Coleman leaves the college. He tries to deal with the injustice of the accusation of racism by writing about it, again responding as a scholar. But it does not work. He tries to interest a reclusive novelist, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinese) in the story. Although they become good friends, Zuckerman does not want to write that story. And then Coleman meets Faunia (Nicole Kidman), a young, beautiful women who works three menial jobs and wants to have sex with Coleman uncomplicated by any tenderness or communication. He is enchanted and energized by Faunia. He describes her as “not my first love and not my great love, but my last love.” He is as happy as only someone who thought there would never be any happiness for him again can be.
Faunia’s past has a stain, too. She has an abusive ex-husband (Ed Harris) who stalks her. Faunia has no possessions, but she is possessed by tragedy and loss.
The past bleeds through to the present as we see more and more of Coleman’s past through flashbacks. And just as Coleman and Faunia are able to reveal themselves to each other for the first time, the present bleeds through to the future and the volatile forces in the past converge inexorably and terribly.
Philip Roth’s ambitious and literary novel is awkwardly adapted for the screen. The book’s almost allegorical structure is supported by Roth’s use of language. On screen, the characters are more plot devices than people. Zuckerman (a Roth-like figure in eight books), though well-played by Sinese, is a narrative convention who adds nothing to the drama. The menace provided by Faunia’s Vietnam veteran ex-husband borders on melodrama.
The most affecting part of the story is in the flashbacks. Young Coleman (Wentworth Miller), in love for the first time with a beautiful, intelligent, and sympathetic Midwestern girl (the lovely Jacinda Barrett), experiments with the feeling of being not black or white but just free of any color. Then he brings her home to meet his mother (Anna Devere Smith), not letting either one know ahead of time that they were of different races. Nothing that happens in the Hopkins/Kidman segment of the story is anywhere near as compelling.
Parents should know that the movie has some very strong language and some very explicit sexual references and situations, including nudity. Characters drink and smoke, sometimes to excess. Characters are in peril and there are some tragic (offscreen) deaths. The movie’s themes about racism and “sanctimony” are provocatively presented.
Families who see this movie should talk about Coleman’s choices. What were the turning points? Would he have chosen differently if he had known that the world was about to change so dramatically? Did Roth mean the charges against Coleman to be ironic or, on a grander scale, tragic and inevitable?
Families who enjoy this movie may like to view some pre-Civil Rights-era movies dealing with the issue of blacks passing as whites, including Pinkie and the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, originally made in 1939. They should also take a look at an even earlier exploration of this issue in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. They also might like to read about one inspiration for the character of Coleman Silk, literary critic Anatole Broyard.