Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain attracted considerable attention some years back; it was widely read as a fictionalized version of literary critic Anatole Broyard’s life. Broyard, an editor at The New York Times Book Review, was a light-skinned black man who decided early in his career to “pass”; he cut ties with his family and lived his life as a white man. Now Roth’s book has been made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk, son of a Pullman porter, who, when he goes off to college, makes a chilly, clear-eyed, rational-economic decision that being black costs much too much. It confines his love life, it forecloses professional opportunities. Despite the fact that such a choice means cutting all ties to his family and breaking his mother’s heart, he recreates himself as white and, since he is just a touch swarthy, Jewish as well.
The film opens when Silk is an old man, at the end of a long and illustrious career as a classics professor. His reputation has been recently and suddenly ruined, supposedly because he used the word “spook”–purely in the “ectoplasmic” sense, he protests–to refer to two never-seen black students who were absent from his class. Amid accusations of racism he quits, his wife has a stroke and dies, and he retreats to a brooding, bitter semiretirement. He befriends an abused, working-class charwoman, played by Nicole Kidman, who, despite the tattoos with which she is emblazoned and the cigarettes to which she is addicted, is improbably lithe, genteel and unscarred by the violent hell she has survived at the hands of her crazy ex-husband. They fall into each other’s arms, and All Difference Makes No Difference. The film then becomes a rather sweetly tragic May-December love story, an elegant, bravely romantic meditation on the ironies of assimilationism and the pettiness of class bias.
The problem is that this film also aspires to great seriousness about the tyranny of race, and here it misses the mark. One leaves the theater with clichés percolating in one’s head about truth setting you free, about what tangled webs we weave and about how nothing matters but whether we connect as individuals. Yet The Human Stain begins its run against a complicated real-world backdrop of Rush Limbaugh losing his job at ESPN for saying that black football players are promoted to quarterback as a sop to guilty liberals and politically correct media forces. Limbaugh, who once also told a black caller to “take the bone out of your nose,” is now busily pleading “truth,” and claiming victimhood. In Boston, meanwhile, WEEI talk-show host John Dennis described a gorilla that had escaped from Franklin Park Zoo as “probably a Metco gorilla waiting for a bus”–Metco being a program that transports children from Boston’s black neighborhoods to schools in its white suburbs. While Bostonians debate whether a two-day or a two-week suspension is sufficient punishment, Dennis continues to brush off his statement as insensitivity, not racism; as thoughtlessness, not malice.
So how does The Human Stain, if it wants to be more than mere entertainment, help us understand American society in the face of popular ideologues who openly adhere to notions of racial inferiority? I worry that The Human Stain seems to accept the Limbaugh-like premise that a conspiracy of political correctness killed Silk’s wife and his career–rather than his own inner demons, to say nothing of the highhanded condescension he brings to bear in dealing with the complaint. (Let’s be real: Whatever you’ve heard about the culture wars, tenured professors simply do not get pressured or thrown out of jobs just for one ambiguously worded slip of the tongue.)