A nuanced look at race
TURNING A NOVEL of ideas into a movie risks disapproval, even when, as with Philip Roth's "The Human Stain," the novel is somewhat cinematic in that its subject is the social ramifications of how things look. And many reviews of the movie "The Human Stain" have been tepid or chilly. And mistaken. Critics complain that Anthony Hopkins, the versatile Welsh actor (he has played Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal, and C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don), is miscast as an African-American who, during a long career as a classics professor, has passed as white. But the point of the novel and movie is subtle and paradoxical. It is that racial identity can be both chimerical and imprisoning. The difficulty of seeing Hopkins's character, Coleman Silk, as black underscores how racial identity can be optional for some people -- a choice.
Silk's world crumbles when, noting that two students have not attended a single session of his class, he wonders aloud if they are "spooks," meaning wraiths. He is unaware that both students are black and that "spooks" is considered a racial slur. Charged with racism by college officials who are unaware of his secret, Silk, who thinks "people are just getting dumber, but more opinionated," indignantly resigns -- without deigning to reveal his secret to defend himself. His wife soon dies of a stroke, which he blames on his crisis, compounding his bitterness.
The movie turns on what we see: pigmentation -- a stain, of sorts. Visually, Silk is quite simply not black. And aside from the visual, what is race?
Roth's Roman candle of a novel emits showers of ideas, but does not explicitly raise the absurdity and obscenity of the "one drop" rule, which still governs much thinking about race. However, readers and viewers can hardly avoid reflection about the assumption that any admixture of "black blood" makes one black.
Silk, who is very light-skinned, lives a life in flight from what has come to be called identity politics. He grew up in postwar New Jersey, child of middle-class black parents. His father was a railroad dining car waiter, a job representative of the high walls and low ceilings then confining black aspiration. The father wanted the son to go to Howard University, a bridge to the black professional elite. But Silk, an amateur boxer, is told by his coach, who is white, not to tell another college's recruiter that he is black: "He's going to think you're Jewish." Thus Silk glimpses the emancipating idea that he has a "say in the matter," that he can chose to be "neither one thing nor the other."
When he informs his mother of his intention to "pass" as white, she says: "You aren't going to let them see me, are you -- my grandchildren." After acidly asking, "Suppose they don't pop out of the womb as white as you?" her parting word to him is: "murderer." But although his manner is silky smooth, he is steel straight through: He never flinches from the discipline inherent in the path he has chosen.
His mother says he is choosing to live like a slave, and indeed he is maneuvering secretly within a society where careers are still not open to talents. But is he enslaved by his secret, or is he liberated by it because it is his choice to be "neither one thing nor the other"? Creating this impenetrable zone of privacy is his act of supreme sovereignty.
Thematically, American literature has been here before. Even before Jay Gatsby, the theme of reinvention was as American as the beckoning frontier and its promise of second chances.
Cinematically, what was the solution to taking Silk off the page, into visibility? Director Robert Benton, speaking by telephone from France, asks: "Who could I have cast?" Someone "blacker" than Hopkins would have subverted the movie's challenge, which is to consider the corner into which people are painted by the politics of racial identity.
Fine movies from "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) through "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) have addressed race in a manner less oblique -- more black and white, as it were. But most such movies are, in a sense, intellectual and moral comfort food. They do not challenge the oddly soothing traditional template of racial thinking -- the premise, which is increasingly a myth, that there are two and only two brightly delineated racial identities.
Those movies matched their moments. "The Human Stain," however, is for persons seeking a more nuanced take on America's evolving experience with race.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.