The Human Stain
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 7 Nobember 2003

I don't do sympathy

Robert Benton's The Human Stain looks sideways at racism. To that end, it opens in 1998, during the summer when Clinton, the States' "first black President," is being impeached. According to narrator Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), the national obsession with self-righteous judgment and "sanctimony" frames the saga of aging classics professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins).

Adapted by Nicholas Meyer from Philip Roth's 2000 novel, The Human Stain begins with a crisis for Coleman, who falls victim to a certain "political correctness." A 35-year veteran teacher, department head, and dean at a small liberal arts college in Vermont, he is introduced holding forth on Achilles as a model for the Western literary tradition, in which the hero, Coleman intones, "gets the girl." As such tradition speaks to presumptuous cultural desire, Coleman condemns and celebrates it at the same time: he sees through it and wants it too. As much as he is able to elucidate his world, he is, at the same time, its product.

This becomes clear when he notes that two of his students have never come to class. Frustrated, he calls them out, wondering aloud if they are actual beings or what he calls "spooks." Little does he know that the missing students are black. And so the tedious tempest in this teacup begins. His own colleagues condemn his choice of language, however he intended what he said, and he resigns in a huff. He knows what he meant: why can't they just take his word for it?

When his loyal wife is so upset by the news that she dies -- on the spot -- by aneurysm, he can blame his accusers for yet another crime. Or at least this is what he tells the fellow he taps to write his story, Zuckerman, famous novelist and fellow Jew, who happens to be summering in a nearby cabin. Though Nathan asserts that the older man can do his own self-inventing, the two do become friends, and in the end, Nathan does tell the story, in and as The Human Stain.

Coleman's life is complicated considerably when he meets the erratic, exciting, and utterly lovely Faunia (Nicole Kidman), college janitor, post office clerk, and cow milker. Her workaholism is less a matter of ambition (she was born rich and abandoned/was rejected by her family) than a way to keep busy. That is, the mythically named Faunia has her own unhappy history, including abuse by her stepfather, which is not a little creepy, considered alongside her erotic hijinks with a newly invigorated (that is, Viagra-ed) Coleman. She's a pistol, though, and he's moved by her toughness as much as by her vulnerability and stunning beauty: right after she invites him inside her above-the barn apartment, she growls, "If you're lookin' for sympathy, you've come to the wrong place. I don't do sympathy."

As the relationship turns more earnest (at least according to Coleman's version of events, related to Nathan), so do the problems and presumptions that come with. She suspects that he likes "fuckin' a cleaning lady," and even more urgently, Faunia's estranged husband, Lester (Ed Harris), turns out to be a glaringly damaged cliché of a Vietnam veteran. He functions here mostly to threaten the blissful couple, and indict the bad government and surveillance practices, as he uncraftily suggests to the shrink who queries him. As per his "confessional" function with the doctor, Lester gives up not only his own longstanding rage, but also the harrowing secret source of Faunia's own self-loathing while threatening her and Coleman with stalker-style violence. 

As tends to happen in such grandly schemed stories, Faunia's self-abhorrence is more than matched by Coleman's, if not in precise kind, then in cultural verdict -- each is identified by trauma, his by race and hers by gender (or the expectations of gender). Nathan the narrator withholds Coleman's secret, that is, his blackness, until that point in the film when he must lapse into clumsy flashbacks. These reveal Coleman as a young boxer and college student (Wentworth Miller), with his family, and en route to his own life-defining secret, his decision to pass. It doesn't help matters that Miller resembles Hopkins not a whit (especially odd in this context is Hopkins' accent, perhaps affected as part of his passing apparatus; suffice it to say that Hopkins is distracting).

It's hardly a coincidence that Coleman's pass involves bedding white women -- his first enthrallment involves blond coed Steena Paulsson (former Real World-er Jacinda Barrett). He instructs her on boxing, they laugh and have sex, the "miscegenation" moment bathed in golden light. He's frightened and thrilled by the untruth, takes her home to his mother Dorothy (flawless Anna Deveare Smith), whereupon Steena's horror at his deception (to underline: not his mother's, but the blond's) convinces him not to stop deceiving, but to do so relentlessly -- he will never again see his train porter father (Harry Lennix) or his decent, supportive mother. Her anguish at this news is moving, his resistance to her pain is horrifying: she sees immediately that he hasn't thought it through, that the lie precludes his fathering children (as the chance of a child revealing his race is too possible and too fearsome). His brother warns him to steer clear of the family. In other words, this decision is final.

While Coleman plainly prospers following his decision -- he attends Pitt instead of Howard, imagines himself into a world of privilege and presumption he had only glimpsed previously, gets that gig at the college -- he's also, the film suggests, suffering, at least after he loses his job and the wife dies. Faunia is the one, the film supposes, who both reflects and understands him truly (this before she has a heart to heart with a crow, literally, after a fight with Coleman). "I see you, Coleman," she insists. "I see anger and I see shame. I see everything."

The film insists on Coleman's continuing tragedy, the self-hatred that drives and sustains it, and the ways it reflects a self-destructive and wholly unstable culture. While Nathan doesn't even learn of this self-shaping secret until it is too late (yet another facet of the tragedy), the film's structure reveals it sooner, which is all to the good, as Coleman's previous life scenes are the film's most well-acted and convincing. 

While Nathan is expressly surprised to learn that the man he thought was Jewish is black, he also notes the irony of his having his career ended by being judged racist. Neither Nathan nor the film wrestles with the essential devastation here -- that Coleman bent his life to outwit the racist order that sought to identify him, but he also capitulated to it, and paid every day of his life. Nathan goes so far as to wonder whether admitting his blackness would have undone the charge of racism, not seeing that in fact, his life and his lie are functions of racism.

Directed by:
Robert Benton

Anthony Hopkins
Nicole Kidman
Gary Sinise
Ed Harris
Wentworth Miller
Jacinda Barrett
Anna Deavere Smith
Harry Lennix

Written by:
Philip Roth
Nicholas Meyer

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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