Cinematic Stain Stirs My Soul: Coleman Silk, I Feel Your Pain

Robert Benton’s The Human Stain , from a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth, is nothing if not ambitious as it raises the most profound questions about our less than prideful interracial history, and about the uneasy relationships between the printed words of literature and the images and sounds of cinema. In this instance, Mr. Benton and Mr. Meyer have undertaken the Herculean task of adapting Mr. Roth’s magnificent vastness of a novel to the more modest dimensions of a feature-length film. Consequently, when I finally went to see The Human Stain at a private screening, my first reaction was one of relief-that Messrs. Benton and Meyer had managed as well as they had in presenting the major themes of a novel endowed with the cultural amplitude and existential drama of the most beguiling works of Balzac, Stendhal and Trollope.

There are some who may argue that it is foolhardy to adapt to the screen a book as dense as Mr. Roth’s 125,000-word-or-so sprawl across more than 50 years in American race relations along the Eastern Corridor from Mr. Roth’s East Orange and Newark, N.J., to Greenwich Village in Manhattan and, finally and fatally, to New England. Think first of the updated Aristotelian unities for the cinema: The ideal movie should occur over a short period of time during which the beginning, middle and end of the dramatic arc can be accommodated within a 90-minute to two-hour-plus running time. But to follow your protagonist from youth to old age, requiring the use of two different actors for the different stages of his existence, risks jarring the audience’s suspension of disbelief in the cinematic illusion.

Nonetheless, Mr. Benton and Mr. Meyer have been adroit enough in the choices they have made-what to include from the novel and what to exclude and compress-that I feel emboldened to suggest that we are more culturally enriched by the film’s existence than we would have been if the film had never been made at all. In short, the movie is fully worthy of the book, and will reach many people who might not have enjoyed the delightful experience of gliding through Mr. Roth’s trenchant and zestful prose on the human condition. As Mr. Roth himself summarizes his enterprise, “We leave a stain, a trail and imprint-it’s the only way to be here.”

Still, if I weren’t convinced that The Human Stain was one of the most important films of the year in terms of edification as well as of entertainment, I would excuse myself from any obligation of objectivity for my readers; not only because of my long friendship with Mr. Benton, my brief but pleasant acquaintance with Mr. Roth, and my professional debt to the late Anatole Broyard, the “passer” and Times book reviewer on whom Mr. Roth’s Coleman Silk is partly based. No, what disqualifies me most of all as a completely disinterested reviewer of The Human Stain is my deep, almost uncanny identification with the inevitably tragic trajectory of many of the scenes.

To put it bluntly, I am of an age that makes me wince when I hear the voice of Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) speaking calmly of the consequences of his operation for prostate cancer. I nod sagely to myself when I hear 71-year-old Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) ruminate about a “first great love” and a “last great love.” I have happened to indulge in such purple prose myself over the years. But most striking of all is the sheer coincidence of my mini-misadventures with the word “spook” back in 1988, when I addressed a Brooklyn College Alumni meeting. Though I am a Columbia graduate (1951), I was invited because I had lived at 1533 Flatbush Avenue, near the corner with Nostrand Avenue, in the mid-1930′s-just about the time that Brooklyn College was built on a nearby empty field which was the site of a circus every year. If you recall, 1988 was the year of the ill-fated campaign of Michael Dukakis against George Bush senior. On this occasion, I was compelled to support my fellow countryman, Mr. Dukakis, against Mr. Bush.

“Besides,” I added, “I’d feel very nervous with a spook in the White House,” making what I thought was a satirical reference to Mr. Bush’s previous service in the C.I.A. Seemingly out of nowhere, an African-American student appeared at my elbow and quietly handed me a note which read, as best as I can remember, “The student council does not appreciate the use of the racially derogatory term, ‘spook.’” I had never used that word in that context in my entire life, though I had heard it uttered, but how could that be its meaning here, when I was applying it to the first George Bush? As it happened, there was no one to whom I could turn to explain. So it became just another anecdote about political correctness run amok.

In both the book and the movie, the plural form of “spook” is what gets Coleman Silk into trouble with the authorities and faculty at Athena College, where he has served as an innovative dean and a popular professor of classics. Enraged by what he perceives as a malicious persecution over a trivial misunderstanding, Coleman rashly resigns from the faculty without being asked. His staunchly loyal wife, Iris (Phyllis Newman), in rallying support for her embattled husband, dies from the stress and strain. (I must say that Iris’ death is presented with unseemly haste in the movie, which is part of the problem of compression in any literary adaptation to the screen.)

The death of Iris sets Coleman on another rampage, to write a book showing how the treacherous faculty of Athena College “murdered” his wife. It is at this point that he enlists the help of the hitherto-reclusive Nathan Zuckerman, at the latter’s mountain cabin, to write the book. Zuckerman insists that the professor must write the book himself, but in the process, the two men become close friends, to the point that Zuckerman becomes Coleman Silk’s only confidante in his subsequent romantic entanglement with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a 34-year-old college cleaning woman of impeccably upper-class New England stock. Faunia is a walking poster child of misfortune-sexual abuse at the hands of her lascivious stepfather and batterings at the hands of her crazed Vietnam War veteran husband, Lester Farley (Ed Harris)-which precipitates the final tragedy of Coleman’s tangled existence, when Lester begins stalking his ex-wife and her last lover.

The central irony of both the book and the movie is that Coleman Silk, the disgraced racist of Athena College, has been harboring a deep, dark secret for most of his adult life, living a lie as a white Jewish intellectual with invented parentage when he was actually born into a light-skinned African-American family with a very well-read father who toiled in Pullman cars with their lily-white clientele and their all-colored labor force. Coleman’s father dies of a heart attack one day as he is ministering to the complaint of an angry white diner. The dream of Coleman’s dad was that his son would enter Howard University in Washington and study medicine. But Coleman-a brilliant liberal-arts student and a slick boxer who never lost a bout-didn’t wish to submerge his individuality in the “we” of an oppressed minority, and so he made the decision to break off all connections with his family and then forge a radically new identity.

In an inspired example of Bazinian doubling, a young Coleman is played by a white-skinned African-American actor, Wentworth Miller, who was actually born in Great Britain but raised in Brooklyn. He graduated from Princeton University, where he began acting and also sang with the school’s touring a cappella group. He appeared in several television series before making his feature-film debut in The Human Stain . Happily for Mr. Miller, he has emerged at a time when he doesn’t have to “pass” as white to obtain his full civil rights as well as decent roles as an actor.

The most heartbreaking scene in the film takes place between the young Coleman and his mother (Anna Deavere Smith), as she tells him-and herself-that his planned rupture with his birth family means that she may never see her grandchildren, except at a prearranged time and place that would serve to conceal her true identity from all the members of Coleman’s white family. Coleman’s brother, Walter (Danny Blanco Hall), subsequently warns Coleman never to go near their mother again, so Coleman’s racial separation from his origins is enforced more or less from both sides-but Coleman eventually realizes that his chosen change of identity has become as much an enslavement to deception as a liberation of his sacred individuality.

But if Coleman’s tortured repudiation of his family is the soul of the story, its heart resides in Mr. Roth’s romantic exuberance over the first and last loves of Coleman’s life. In parallel solo dances of female seductiveness, Coleman’s first love, the Danish-Icelandic-Minnesotan blond goddess Steena Paulsson (Jacinda Barrett), and Ms. Kidman’s hard-bitten Faunia Farley, project Mr. Roth’s transparent tendencies in the realm of erotic idealization, but Mr. Benton and his cinematographer, the late Jean-Yves Escoffier-to whom the film is dedicated-manage to muffle the exploitational dangers of the provocative parallel by never losing their focus on the respectfully admiring males in both instances.

Ms. Barrett’s Steena provides a second heartbreaking scene when she is sobbing helplessly on the train back from a visit, without a warning, to young Coleman’s African-American family. “I can’t do it,” Steena sobs, and we all know what she means. For Coleman, the gates have closed forever on any hopes for a bridge between his two lives. Ms. Barrett, one in the seemingly inexhaustible supply of Australian actresses able to cry a river with passion and fury, remains memorable in a part small enough to have been considerably less than memorable.

As for Ms. Kidman’s Faunia, I have heard people say that she’s miscast, but I don’t think that is the point. That she is clearly younger and taller than Mr. Hopkins makes up for a certain misplaced reticence in her delivery, which makes her performance as a whole less dramatically forceful than it might have been. But she and Mr. Hopkins develop a subtle rapport with each other that paves the way for total self-exposure on both sides. To preserve the continuity of the Coleman character, Mr. Hopkins has gone so far as to put on green-colored contact lenses to match the greenish eyes of Mr. Miller. And in a strange way, he is eminently equipped to portray a Greek tragic hero (Athena College, anyone?) impaled on the phallic thrust of a sexual hubris that he and Mr. Roth have expressed so eloquently over the years in their different art forms. Indeed, the reason that Faunia is so difficult to cast is that she is less a real woman with an interior life than a majestic projection of Mr. Roth’s volcanic narcissism. As I said earlier, Mr. Roth and Mr. Benton are of my time, and I feel their pain. Perhaps you will, too. I hope so.