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.)
Silk’s difficult, unpleasant side is much clearer in the book than in the person of Hopkins, who plays the part with a sad, radiant loneliness that lends Silk quite a sympathetic mien. Indeed, Hopkins is just a little too appealing in this role. And so when he loses “everything” over a “pissy little word,” the fault is allowed to lie mostly with the moral stupidity of invisible but censorious black accusers. Silk gives himself over to the kind of suffering Rush Limbaugh all but basks in.
Bear with me here, but I think the story’s complexity would have been better exploited if they had actually cast Limbaugh as Coleman Silk. Limbaugh, who persistently positions himself as far as possible from anything black, is, ironically, very much like the socially invisible legions of once-black people who spend their lives passing but remain hounded by fear of being outed, giddily and anxiously distancing themselves from all things On The Other Side. I’m not implying that Limbaugh is black–not as far as we know anyway. Just ideologically speaking…
I wish this movie had focused more on this deeper dimension–on passing’s cost not just to Silk himself but to family, friends and to society itself. There is brief acknowledgment of his mother, played with brilliant subtlety by Anna Deavere Smith, whose face collapses slowly and ages before our eyes when her son tells her of his decision. But on the whole, The Human Stain treats passing as a difficult but basically admirable form of ambition. It too easily glosses over the selfishness, the self-loathing, the cruelty and, yes, the racism, it takes to deny not only who you are as an individual, but any connection to one’s living, breathing family members. Passing bears the same ugly shape as the psychic denial of white owners when they had children by their slaves but could not see themselves in the faces of those children. Passing is the practice of orphaning oneself.
At the very end of The Human Stain, after Silk is dead and buried and the secret of his identity becomes known, his sister remarks, with weighted solemnity, that all he had to do was tell the truth in order to refute the charge of racism. But it is much too simplistic to assume that one’s ancestry inoculates one against racism. Such glib moral summation avoids the real complexity of a Coleman Silk or an Anatole Broyard or even the lost cause of a Rush Limbaugh: that passing is but one face of the collective abandonment of the political problem of race; it substitutes a calculated and loveless escapism for civic commitment to the transformative notion of human equality.