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COUNTERPUNCH

'Human Stain's' lessons about U.S. assimilation

November 17, 2003|Kimberly Cooper Plaszewski

I was dismayed that in her review of "The Human Stain" ("Vital Ideas Are Lost in the Translation," Oct. 31), film critic Manohla Dargis ignored discussing the movie's important racial themes and instead opted to criticize the casting of Anthony Hopkins because he is not black -- even though the character is supposed to look white. I couldn't help but feel Dargis was missing the point.

"The Human Stain" is a groundbreaking contribution to the racial debate in America. Not only does the film exhibit an underrepresented historical phenomenon involving black/white relations, it also provides a constructive platform for navigating our own preconceived notions regarding self-identity as well as racial typecasting within Hollywood cinema.

Set in 1998, "The Human Stain" tells the story of Coleman Silk, a man haunted by a life-altering decision to deceptively reinvent his racial identity in search of individuality and freedom. The dramatic irony of Coleman's secret is foreshadowed within the first 20 minutes of the film when his professional career as a Jewish college professor is stunted prematurely by false allegations of racism. Pressured to resign, Coleman soon thereafter becomes widowed and finds familiarity, solace and sexual enlightenment in Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a hard-edged, blue-collar woman half his age.

What is fundamental to ponder to appreciate this film is whether it is plausible for an individual to be defined as one race and yet effectively "pass" for another. Reviewers nationwide have been distracted by the producers' decision to cast Hopkins, a Welsh actor, in the lead role. The character, however, as described in Philip Roth's 2000 bestselling novel, is a light-skinned African American with skin "white as snow," thereby enabling him to transform his racial identity from "Negro" to "White" without question.

Casting Hopkins was courageous, because it requires the audience to transcend significant barriers with regard to preconceived notions of racial distinctiveness within mainstream film. And Hopkins' captivating performance as a man struggling to maintain his self-imposed identity in the face of defeat is flawless -- regardless of the actor's "authentic" racial background.

Historically, "light-skinned" African Americans who could misrepresent their racial identity because they had physical features closely resembling those of white Americans often did so to gain upward mobility in mainstream society, moving beyond segregated, blue-collar working conditions. This phenomenon is traditionally referred to as "passing."

The consequences, however, were costly. Family members were rejected and entire generations of people were lost -- crossing the racial divide into white America and forever detaching themselves from their African American lineage. One of the film's most powerful scenes takes place in a flashback sequence when we learn of Coleman's decision as a young man (brilliantly portrayed by newcomer Wentworth Miller) to reject his mother (Anna Deavere Smith) and siblings to successfully "pass" for white.

Not since Douglas Sirk's 1959 version of "Imitation of Life" (also panned by critics but successful at the box office) has a major studio attempted to address "passing" and the struggles encountered by those directly affected by it in this country. Now, more than 40 years later, "The Human Stain" invokes a rediscovery and affirmation of this historical occurrence for contemporary audiences to digest.

Even though the pressures that drove Coleman Silk to denounce his racial background have lessened over the last few decades, we continue to live in a nation that places far too much emphasis on skin color and racial categories instead of the individuality of the human being within. Census 2000 was the first time in U.S. history in which people of biracial heritage could indicate their entire racial background if so desired. These individuals of "mixed race" continue to remain virtually nonexistent elsewhere, however, such as on school enrollment forms (where biracial children must choose one racial identity over another when requested to "self-identify"). Forced to assimilate their biracial identity into one distinct racial classification, they, like Silk, are too often faced with the dilemma of "passing" or denying part of their individualism in order to secure acceptance and acknowledgment within U.S. culture.

"The Human Stain" should be valued and celebrated for its courageous attempt to further the nation's awareness about these matters. Coleman Silk challenges what we think we know about racial identity, while at the same time providing an accurate depiction of the lengths to which people have gone to free themselves from oppression and discrimination in the shaping of an "American" identity. Long overdue, the film requires us to rethink how we continue to legitimize ourselves on the basis of race in the United States.

Kimberly Cooper Plaszewski is a diversity consultant and director of development for the Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs in Los Angeles.

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