If you`ve already seen the magnificent
Master and Commander and want another
intelligent film for grown-ups, Robert Benton`s
adaptation of Philip Roth`s vigorous novel
The Human Stain is one of the more interesting
movies about race.
The reaction to The Human Stain is interesting
too—although depressing evidence how far race
flat-earthism has infected the Beltway Conservative
Anthony Hopkins plays the movie`s central character,
American classics professor Coleman Silk, a scholar who
is labeled a racist by his colleagues in one of those
absurd but destructive witch hunts that are such a
pox on academia. Ironically, unknown to everyone,
Silk is from an African-American family himself. But he
has been passing as a Jew.
Welshman Hopkins looks like neither one.
Accordingly, his casting has been widely criticized.
George F. Will, however, has
defended Hopkins` selection. To Will, the many
criticisms are misplaced because race is only, you know,
point of the novel and movie is subtle and paradoxical.
It is that racial identity can be both chimerical and
imprisoning. The difficulty of seeing Hopkins`s
character, Coleman Silk, as black underscores how racial
identity can be optional for some people—a choice…
“The movie turns on what we see: pigmentation—a
stain, of sorts. Visually, Silk is quite simply not
black. And aside from the visual, what is race?”
Will also asks plaintively:
“Cinematically, what was the solution to taking Silk
off the page, into visibility?"
Well, we can`t expect Will to think
terribly deeply about filmmaking, but the solution to
this simple technical problem is make-up.
Hollywood has cosmetic artists so talented they can
make Eddie Murphy into a little old Jewish man in the
barbershop scene in Coming to America. They
can certainly make a white star look ever so slightly
In fact, they did just that in the
wonderful comedy about the mixed race roots of country
music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen
George Clooney made up in such a subtle way that you
simply assume he`s supposed to be pure white … until you
see that one of his seven daughters is clearly of mixed
race. Suddenly, you notice that
Clooney has been made up to look a bit black, too.
Unfortunately, makers of serious films
are now so terrified of putting whites in blackface—like
Al Jolson in
The Jazz Singer—that Human Stain director
Robert Benton apparently didn`t dare use this obvious
If not about filmmaking, however, we can expect Will to
think deeply about race. But instead, he appears to have
fallen completely for the
race deniers` line that race is just cosmetic:
"Roth`s Roman candle of a novel emits showers of ideas,
but does not explicitly raise the absurdity and
obscenity of the `one drop` rule, which still governs
much thinking about race. However, readers and viewers
can hardly avoid reflection about the assumption that
any admixture of `black blood` makes one black.
Silk, who is very light-skinned, lives a life in flight
from what has come to be called identity politics."
But fixating on boundary quibbles is
causing Will to miss the wood for trees. Whatever the
drawbacks of the
the grander truth is that race is an
objective reality. Race is who your relatives
are. (Here`s my essay "It`s
All Relative" explaining my proposed definition of
racial groups: "partly inbred extended families.")
And this objective reality has many consequences.
The Human Stain`s
author, Philip Roth, a disillusioned 1950s liberal, has
a far more profound understanding of all this. Indeed,
Roth`s novel was largely inspired by the fascinating
life of one of the biggest boosters of his own career,
the distinguished New York Times book reviewer
Anatole Broyard (1920-1990). Broyard was an erudite and
urbane man-about-Greenwich-Village of moderately
van den Haag was a confidante.
Broyard never told his children that
all their paternal ancestors had been legally considered
Negroes. Nonetheless, numerous African-Americans, and
some whites, recognized that he was part black. For
example, Henry Louis Gates
legendary jazzman "Charlie Parker spied Broyard
in Washington Square Park one day and told a companion,
`He`s one of us, but he doesn`t want to admit he`s one
of us.`" (Here`s Broyard`s
Roth is deeply sympathetic to Silk`s
reinvention of himself. But, unlike Will, he also
understands its human cost. Broyard blocked his
darker-skinned sister from meeting his children until
his funeral. And when the young Silk changes his race,
he cuts his clearly part-African mother off from his new
In the novel, Silk`s mother`s responds
to his announcement with this moving soliloquy:
“`I`m never going to know my grandchildren,` she said.
`You`re never going to let them see me,` she said.
`You`re never going to let them know who I am. "Mom,"
you`ll tell me, "Ma, you come to the railroad station in
New York, and you sit on the bench in the waiting room,
and at eleven twenty-five A.M., I`ll walk by with my
kids in their Sunday best." That`ll be my birthday
present five years from now. "Sit there, Mom, say
nothing, and I`ll just walk them slowly by." And you
know very well that I will be there. The railroad
station. The zoo. Central Park. Wherever you say, of
course, I`ll do it. You tell me the only way I can ever
touch my grandchildren is for you to hire me to come
over as Mrs. Brown to baby-sit and put them to bed. I`ll
do it… I have no choice.`"
Will is so blinded by ideology that he fails to grasp the
emotional power of this, the movie`s best scene. Indeed,
he is so hot to denounce
that he views Silk`s poor mother as the
villain! He writes—
"When he informs his mother of his intention to `pass`
as white, she says: `You aren`t going to let them see
me, are you—my grandchildren.` After acidly asking,
`Suppose they don`t pop out of the womb as white as
you?` her parting word to him is: `murderer.` But
although his manner is silky smooth, he is steel
straight through: He never flinches from the discipline
inherent in the path he has chosen. "
Self-proclaimed “Tory” George Will ends
up sounding like a vulgarized
"His mother says he is choosing to live like a slave …
But is he enslaved by his secret, or is he liberated by
it because it is his choice to be `neither one thing nor
the other`? Creating this impenetrable zone of privacy
is his act of supreme sovereignty."
Bunk. In truth, no man is an island. We are all bound to
our kin in ways that we never chose—ties both joyous and
tragic that can`t be redefined out of existence.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and