Based on the best seller by Philip Roth, "The Human Stain" is a provocative illustration of
public opinion at its worst. When an esteemed classics professor is accused of a making a
racist statement, rather than analyze the facts and proceed cautiously, the university forces
him to resign. His career, marriage, and life are forever in ruin. Academy Award winning
director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) assembles a terrific cast to relay the allegory of
Coleman Silk, a private man whose life is altered by a false sense of righteousness.
Tragically engaging, "The Human Stain" is a somber look at cause and effect; in particular,
it's a parable about how a society's beliefs and morals can mask the truth, sometimes for an
Coleman Silk is a well-respected professor and dean of the prestigious Athena College in
small town New England. Once an undefeated welterweight boxer known as Silky Silk, Coleman
has earned his keep, working his way up through the ranks at the college and hiring
professors, like Yale literary theorist Delphine Roux, who share in his passion. At 71 and
nearing retirement, however, things take an unexpected turn. During a routine class, Silk
innocently refers to two absent students as "spooks," ignorant of fact that the two students
are black. Immediately, the allegations of racism force Coleman to resign. But in the
process, his friends turn against him, his wife passes away from the strain, and he begins
a tumultuous affair with a 34-year-old janitor and postal worker named Faunia Farley.
The relationship between Coleman and Faunia is an odd one. She's more than half his age, was
abused growing up, has a husband who stalks her, is simplistic and illiterate, and lives a
carefree and sexually open lifestyle. Coleman, on the other hand, is a widower, a highly
sophisticated intellect, and lives with a secret he's kept for over 50 years.
Living in misery after the death of his wife, Coleman seeks out Nathan Zuckerman, a famed
local author, who lives a quiet life in seclusion. Knowing Zuckerman has been struggling to
find that next great idea, Coleman offers his story to help. Despite initial reservations,
Zuckerman comes to admire Coleman, learns about his passionate affair with Faunia and his
previous loves, his career as a boxer, his affinity for big band music, as well as those who
have grown to despise him. As tension rises and secrets are revealed, many confrontations
are inevitable - between past and present. And on a wintery, back country road, life and
death are a human stain away.
"The Human Stain" represents the third chapter in a trilogy of award winning
novels from Philip Roth. The previous two, "American Pastoral" (Pulitzer Prize)
and "I Married a Communist" are connected by way of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter
ego, who acts as the sounding board for his main characters. It is Zuckerman who
must reconstruct their stories, stories that seem normal and peaceful on the
surface, but underneath reek with an undercurrent of grief, deception, and
violence. In "American Pastoral," Seymour "the Swede" Levov is considered the
Golden Boy, a high school sports star and intellect who has everything going for
him until his daughter ruins his chance for happiness by committing a political
act of violence. In "I Married a Communist," Ira Ringold, a famed radio announcer
and political activist is brought to ruin by his wife who betrays him by
publishing a paper about his supposed Communist ways. Now, with the "The Human
Stain," Roth's character Coleman Silk is brought to ruin by a perceived racial
slur that might not have been racist at all.
The film takes place during the summer of 1998, the summer of the Bill Clinton and Monica
Lewinsky scandal. It is here where the book and the film take their name. In fact, director
Robert Benton sets the tone by opening with a conversation among students at Athena College
surrounding the nuances of the case. It's this lascivious interest that occupies most
Americans minds, even in a small town community. And it's this preoccupation that sets the
stage for Coleman's ironic conundrum - he embodies the spirit of Achilles and the Greek/Roman
tragedies that he teaches.
Nicholas Meyer, known primarily for his work in the Star Trek universe, lends his
screenwriting credibility to Roth's delicate human drama. And for the most part,
he succeeds. Each scene is enticing, draws you in, and tackles the verbal
foreplay from the book nicely. But to his misfortune, there are no special
effects that can be inserted in between lines to allow for clean transitions.
Throughout the film, the pieces don't blend well together and the logic is
trifling. In particular, the effort to fill in Coleman's past almost feels like a
separate story arc all together. Unrelated, the flashbacks occur intermittently
and outlast their welcome.
"The Human Stain" is a great acting showcase. The quartet of Anthony Hopkins,
Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, and Gary Sinise is enough to warrant a viewing. And
Wentworth Miller as the young Coleman Silk gives an understated, pent up emotional
performance that earns your pity. But like director Robert Benton's previous
work, "Twilight," the film suffers because of all this talent. Sadly, the main
cast has very little to do. Occasionally, each has their moment: Hopkins
defending his story in front of Sinise, Kidman informing Hopkins about her mangled
past, Harris' unsettling reactions to his interrogator, and Sinise matching wits
with Harris. There's even a wonderfully whimsical scene involving Hopkins and
Sinise slow dancing to big band tunes. But despite all of their individual
efforts, the story is too segmented to provide anything fulfilling as a whole.
Especially annoying, the two main characters are unable to confront the demons
that have plagued them all their lives.
"The Human Stain" is a complex story of American fabric - failed dreams and
aspirations, futility and rage over social distortion, and suppressed feelings
and emotions that go without communication. It's a very powerful story, but one
that is slow to develop, lingers too long in the past, and erects characters with
very little resolution. Though the film was slightly miscast, I still found
myself drawn to the story, the characters, and their lives. I felt guilty and
ashamed for being sucked into the whirlwind, but it's what we as a society have
been doing for centuries - eviscerating individuals' reputations and character
in the public eye, oftentimes without regard to logic or reason. It makes for
great drama, but unfortunately, once the cycle begins, there's no way to remove