'Passing' In America

Race has become such a rare topic in Hollywood movies that The Human Stain -- which deals with the even more rare subject of racial passing -- seems to be the work of trailblazing radicals. Director Robert Benton, best known for Kramer vs. Kramer, has filmed an adaptation of Philip Roth's 2000 novel to make a thoughtful, bold exploration of American values. It's also one of the bravest -- and strangest -- Hollywood movies in recent years.

Anthony Hopkins portrays Coleman Silk, a classics professor whose university position is threatened when he is sued for making a racist remark about several of his black students. It turns out that Coleman himself is a light-skinned black man passing for a white Jewish academic. The Human Stain is the story of the messy trail of deception and hurt feelings that characterize Coleman's life. Rebounding from charges of racism, Coleman begins an affair with a working-class white woman, Faunia Farely (Nicole Kidman), which stirs up painful regrets about his life-long charade.

Benton depicts Coleman's imposture with the same kind of audacity one recalls from his 1984 movie Places in the Heart. That film's climax -- a brief, wishful depiction of an America healed of its racial wounds -- has a surrealistic edge that gets under the skin of anyone who took the movie's Depression-era nostalgia for granted. (Our despair about American social relations is powerfully evoked by Benton's expression of our desire for human harmony.) The Human Stain should be similarly shocking and not at all ameliorative for contemporary audiences. Benton uncannily conveys the tragedy of passing by treating Coleman's dilemma as a love story gone all wrong.

Far superior to the clueless, exploitative hook-up in Monster's Ball, The Human Stain dramatizes conflicts that go deeper than skin color. Both Coleman and Faunia come together in misery and lust, as both have tried to escape their pasts. It is revealed that she has run away from a world of privilege while he has attempted to escape from one bound by race. But as Americans -- and as human beings descended from tribes and customs -- there is no escape. Coleman and Faunia's attempts at erasure prove to be futile -- and self-punishing. No matter what shaky respite they find with each other, the effort to ignore history costs them peace of mind. Benton rejects the dishonesty of Monster's Ball, which shallowly implied that the attraction of opposites was a hopeful resolution for America's race troubles. The Human Stain takes a deeper, more conscientious, view of our differences.

Roth and Benton share an understanding that personal identity is exacerbated by ingrained social rules. They know that blacks and whites are also victims of class -- class boundaries as well as class delusions. Coleman and Faunia represent the way Americans are either drawn to or rebel against their fated roles. To demonstrate this, Roth and Benton go where the makers of Monster's Ball did not dare -- to history.

The scenes of Coleman's background are what make The Human Stain extraordinary. They not only enhance the Coleman-Faunia relationship, but show how history repeats itself. Even more remarkable, Roth and Benton are aware that human psychology repeats itself. Roth's great contribution to American literature is his recognition of the compulsions that drive his character's sex lives, tribal obligations and social feints. Coleman is a metaphor for the bedeviling sense of social mobility experienced by many Jewish Americans -- a compulsion that is complicated by their awareness of tribal history and their contemporary moral obligations that nag at them. That's the kind of diamond-hard topic that has kept filmmakers from putting the similar intelligence of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man on the screen. (Outside of the films of Charles Burnett and William Gunn, few moviemakers have undertaken the subject of blackness with the depth Roth and Ellison exemplify.)

Benton proves himself apt for the task and fearless. As co-author of the epochal 1967 Bonnie & Clyde and director of the postmodern classic The Late Show (a 1977 film-noir satire about the residue of Hollywood mythology felt in modern life), Benton has an impressive grasp of social mythology and individual obsession. He is right in his element when contrasting Coleman's maturity with the memories of his collegiate youth and his black family background. The juxtaposition of these scenes makes for real cinema -- as moving in texture, contrast and tempo as the back-and-forth of The Godfather, Part II. (Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier contributes to the tonal variation with exquisite lighting in both the present and past tense sequences.) Benton achieves a sensual quality for the way the past infiltrates the present. He also does this by resurrecting movie history into his present-day story.

The young Coleman is played by an actor named Wentworth Miller, whose features suggest a combination of Negro and Jewish traits that make Coleman's deception possible. Uncannily, Miller also resembles Mel Ferrer, the actor who portrayed a black doctor passing for white in the trailblazing 1949 Hollywood film Lost Boundaries. Benton's evocation of this historical film landmark buttresses his own. He's aware of a cultural/racial tradition. (When young Coleman dates a white girl at college in the 1940s, they browse a record store and pass by a photo of singer Dick Haymes that reiterates the same ethnic question as Miller.) The tragedy of racism is concisely conveyed in the scenes with Coleman's working-class family where he first makes his terrible decision to pass. Harry Lennix and Anna Devere Smith perfectly play his demanding, yet disheartened parents. Lennix and Smith illustrate pride, intelligence and a sense of hurt. They are moving and memorable -- their spirit can be felt in the tortured rationalizations of the senior Coleman.

Some critics have complained that Hopkins doesn't act black -- which is precisely the story's point. Hopkins is excellent at showing Coleman's obsession with the "other." Like Miller, he does some unusual scenes illustrating his eroticized fascination with passing -- primarily through Coleman's sexual obsession. These are the most startling scenes of Other-lust that have ever been put on screen. Most Hollywood movies elide or cover-up all complication by emphasizing the distractions of sex. In The Human Stain, Benton uses sex -- and romance -- to amplify the complexities of race and politics, to explore the private life. Amazing.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years (1984-1996) and is the author of two books on pop culture.

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