The Persecuting Spirit
Summer of 1998 was “the summer of sanctimony,” claims the narrator of The Human Stain. Robert Benton’s adaptation of the final best-selling novel in Philip Roth’s so-called American trilogy (following American Pastoral and I Married a Communist) takes place at this moment in U.S. history, when private affairs rapidly evolved into public scandals. The film focuses on the scandal initiated when an esteemed classics professor speaks a word that is purposely and woefully misunderstood. The outcry nukes the legacy of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) and indirectly causes three deaths.
Standing before his class at Athena College in small town Vermont, Silk utters a term interpreted as a racial slur. Lecturing on Achilles, he asks about the existence—or lack thereof—of two missing students, neither of whom has managed to attend a single session: “Do these people exist, or are they spooks?”
Called before a group of educators bent on a good old-fashioned career wrecking. Silk describes the charge of racism as “spectacularly false.” But a falsehood repeated is transformed into another variation on the truth, at least for some observers. After agonizing over her husband’s travails, Silk’s wife has a sudden heart attack, and he surprises the college community, his home for 35 years, by quitting rather than sticking around for a nasty fight. “Finally,” reports reclusive novelist Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), in voiceover, “the persecuting spirit caught up with Coleman.” Zuckerman is, of course, Roth’s familiar alter ego, and he will figure into Silk’s story as well.
Benton, who has demonstrated a feel for timely angst (Kramer vs. Kramer ) could be faulted for the casting, on two counts. For one thing, Welsh-born Hopkins, complete with Brit accent, plays Silk, a light-skinned African American from New Jersey passing as a Jew (it’s the Victor/Victoria of racial masquerading). And Nicole Kidman is Faunia, the ex-professor’s new flame, a 34-year-old cleaning woman and dairy worker described as “gaunt” and “illiterate” by Roth. Kidman is neither; instead, she’s alluring and, if not smart, then at least self-aware.
Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer approximates the novel’s effective time shifts, but he leaves gaps big enough to accommodate a Greek tragedy or two. And the movie feels painfully truncated, its various provocative themes duly presented but less than satisfactorily explored; the flashbacks, particularly those concerning Silk’s decision to pass as a Jewish man, and the aftermath of that decision, are skimpy. Still, the film gets at several Big Issues in a manner that’s surprisingly compelling, and, just maybe, surprisingly relevant. “Passing” may initially seem obsolete and irrelevant, particularly in an age when so many racial barriers to advancement have been erased, by the forward march of social justice and legal mandates.
But Zuckerman and the film frame Silk’s decision to pass, made as a young man (played by biracial Wentworth Miller), as a tragedy and a forgivable survival strategy. Some observers might concur, excusing the pain Silk causes his mother and siblings as the unfortunate byproduct of his only method of defense in a war that pits the white establishment against minority mobility, and for which he can’t be held responsible. Silk, before the scandal, had notched a brilliant, satisfying career as a scholar, educator, and administrator. As he suggests (during a flashback), there’s every possibility that racial bias might have impeded his progress had he chosen to be identified as an African-American.
The identity confusion in The Human Stain extends beyond race. Faunia is herself “passing”: she grew up wealthy, but now she’s willfully living on the edge of poverty, disowned—and made invisible—by her mother. Silk’s young lawyer advises his elderly client to abandon her, as her baggage includes an emotionally unstable, dangerous Vietnam War veteran (Ed Harris). “Give up the girl, Achilles,” the attorney advises, more than a little presumptuously.
All of these circumstances amplify the irony of Silk’s tragic downfall, stemming from his own Achilles’ heel. One word—an 11th-hour revelation of his true ethnic identity—could change everything. A single explanation could generate a New World Order in the universe of Coleman Silk. But pride, in his carefully constructed self-image, gets in the way; ultimately, it trumps self-preservation. And the results, for Silk, are disastrous.