The Human Stain
review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 7 Nobember 2003
don't do sympathy
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).
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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).
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.
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."
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.
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.
Anna Deavere Smith
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult