The Human Stain tackles a great many things, with racism and African-American struggles being only the largest of the many themes at play. The dehumanizing power of racism is an undeniable part of America’s past, but it was every bit as important a discussion in the early years of the new millennium when the film came out. It’s every bit as important now at the time of writing and will be every bit as important there, where you are, in the future, at time of reading. As with anything so powerful, so socially destructive, the cultural perception ebbs and flows with time and with provocation. Do we remember that dark past? Do we really? Do we hold a part of it in secret? These questions pry at Coleman Silk, our “hero”. Before we delve into Coleman it must be noted that The Human Stain (the novel) should be a mainstay of every contemporary African-American literature curriculum, and it was written by an Old White Jewish Guy.
That guy is Philip Roth, an author so prolific that it’s surprising so few of his works have been adapted to the screen. The long-gestating adaption of American Pastoral, arguably Roth’s most famous work, is now looking set for the year ahead with Ewan McGregor taking on directing and starring duties. And the adaptation of Indignation just played at Sundance a few days ago to positive reviews, too, so maybe we’re in for a bit of a Roth resurgence in the same way No Country for Old Men prompted a scramble to adapt the best stuff by Cormac McCarthy. Here in The Land of Hypothetical Roth Adaptations we’d cast Johnny Depp as the possibly-demented Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, so when that happens in real life just know that you heard it here first.
As it stands The Human Stain is by far the best Roth adaptation, and that’s because Coleman Silk is arguably the sole Roth character to reach the screen in a mostly-fully-realized state. Bringing a character from literature into cinema more often than not results in a shedding of certain complexities, and no, the film iteration of The Human Stain isn’t magically immune to that. But Coleman himself fares better than you’d think, and so in a way we’re discussing one Coleman here instead of two. For that reason — and because The Human Stain is undervalued as both a novel and a film — we’re hereby issuing a spoiler warning for the remainder of this review. If you’ve yet to read/watch Stain, go check it out. You’re welcome.
The crux of the story is ostensibly the fall of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), who is at first a happily-married classics professor and respected dean at the fictional Athena College in Massachusetts. It is the utterance of a single word — “spooks” — that seems to set Coleman’s world afire, starting with the accusation that the word was applied with direct racism toward two black students. We, readers and watchers, know Coleman’s quip about absentee students being like ghosts has been woefully misconstrued. But it doesn’t matter: Coleman is shamed, losing his job and his reputation along with the friends he made over decades at the college.
From there it worsens. Coleman’s wife dies suddenly, leaving her husband more alone than he had been in years. He meets Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a janitor at both the post office and at Athena, and in his eventual fling with a woman half his age we might feel a further fall is in order. The guy we first met declaiming the intricacies of Homer from the podium of his classroom is now having romps with the cleaning lady. At first glance Faunia is simple, doing what she does with a mop and a bucket of water, smoking cigarettes in between her shifts, going home to her little house, doing it all over again. She seems to have no secrets.
Yet, as is often the case in The Human Stain, secrets lie behind the surface of everything, of glances and phrases, of people. Coleman’s desire arises because Faunia is so different than himself — he being well-to-do, educated, wise in years, she being poor, uneducated, juvenile and naive. He desires what he lacks, and so might she (Yale professor Amy Hungerford in her excellent series on The Human Stain phrases it more powerfully: “Difference between human beings is just that…the engine of desire”). But Faunia’s secrets bubble to the surface in the form of her ex-husband Lester Farley (Ed Harris), and thus do Coleman’s own secrets seem pulled into the light.
One line from the novel: “Could it be because who he really was was entirely his secret?” Many (the aforementioned Professor Hungerford included) read this line two ways. First is that who Coleman really was was entirely something that he himself keeps: his identity as secret. Second is that who Coleman really was was entirely his secret: his secret as identity. Coleman lives his secret, having passed the point in his advancing years where he has lived longer with it than without it, and perhaps the only reason he’s able to finally voice it comes from his encountering wild cards like Faunia so late in his life.
Another of those wild cards is Nathan Zuckerman, the author who’s actually relating the story of The Human Stain to us as he’s writing it. Zuckerman is a stand-in for Roth in many of his novels, a kind of semi-autobiographical figure that pops up from time to time like Hemingway’s Nick Adams. Gary Sinese is perfect as Zuckerman (although the prospect of David Strathairn, just cast as an older Zuckerman in McGregor’s Pastoral, is admittedly exciting). Zuckerman could have easily amounted to a tangential character in the film version of Stain, or a simple audience stand-in replete with expository faculties and little else, or he could have conceivably been cut from the film entirely. Instead, Zuckerman matters in the film as much as he matters in the novel.
The final scene of the film is the tightest knot to untie. Zuckerman subtly confronts Lester Farley, noting that “it seemed impossible to me that someone as vital as Coleman could have been killed in what the police called a freak accident“. Neither Nathan nor Lester state much of anything in explicit terms, talking instead about the intricacies of ice fishing and Nathan’s new book The Human Stain. There is some small sense of a victory here, if we dig deep enough beneath the thick ice that is Coleman’s secret, in Nathan’s acknowledgement of Coleman as “vital” and in the mere fact of him standing in front of Lester Farley; he doesn’t say “I know you killed Coleman” outright, but he says it in his presence and in his assertion of The Human Stain. But it’s a fleeting victory, bittersweet and not at all victorious, one that pales in the face of the real ending of the story.
As a whole we’re meant to question Coleman, to question Faunia, to question Lester, and even to question Nathan for the secrets they hold and the lives they structure around those secrets. Just as this final act of Coleman’s life is triggered by a misconstrued word, we’re also meant to question the validity of The Human Stain as a story told by a man who acknowledges time and again the endless things he will never know about his subject. Take this very review, this thing you’re currently reading, as an example of the power of this questionable nature. Our first paragraph stated, bluntly, that “the dehumanizing power of racism is an undeniable part of America’s past” — and yet that is the very thing Coleman successfully denies. We said Coleman “reached the screen in a mostly-fully-realized state” — and yet Nathan teaches us no one is ever fully realized by another. We also said “we’re discussing one Coleman here instead of two” — and yet we’re really always discussing two Colemans, the new and the old, the identity as secret and the secret as identity. There’s an inescapable difference here between the real truth and the accepted one, a difference brought out by the inevitable exposing of those secrets, and so perhaps difference is more than just “the engine of desire”. Difference — that between Coleman and his own family members, between Coleman and Faunia, between Nathan and Coleman, between one race and another, between anyone and anyone else — is the engine of everything.