In a story that matters, the big social issues often come down to two people talking in a pleasant little room, one of them quietly breaking the heart of the other. That's what happens during the most piercing scene in The Human Stain, a movie that's sometimes touching but rarely approaches the vulgar power and eloquent anger of the Philip Roth novel on which it's based.
Roth argues that the great drama of American life lies in personal transformation, the decision of a man or woman to create a new identity. This requires energy and cruelty -- the cruelty to say goodbye to anyone standing in the way. The goodbye scene in The Human Stain, when a young man informs his mother he won't be needing her anymore, brings the theme of Roth's book ferociously to life.
In 1948 Coleman Silk is in his twenties, part of a striving black family. He comes home from university to tell his mother he's decided to live as a white man. His mother, his brother and his sister have brown skin, but Coleman's happens to be light enough to look Mediterranean.
He's always been his mother's favourite, her golden boy, and as he tells her his plans we watch her realize that he's dropping her from his life. Escaping from the cage of racial identity means so much to him that he's sold his soul, and hers, too. He has explained to his future wife, who believes him to be white, that his parents are dead and he has no siblings. Stoic but sharply aware, the mother realizes that he's symbolically erased his family. When he leaves, she says, "Murderer!"
The actor playing the son, Wentworth Miller, gives a rich, persuasive performance in his first movie. The mother is played by Anna Deavere Smith, known to West Wing viewers as Nancy McNally, the president's national security advisor. (She's also a playwright, a professor at New York University and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship.) They handle the scene with cool politeness while letting us know that one character has ruthlessly hardened his heart and the other is going mad with grief.
Coleman ticks the box for "white" on his U.S. Navy enlistment form, adopts a Jewish identity, becomes a classics professor, serves as dean of an elite New England college, gets pushed out of his job by the academic language police and, at 71, engages in a Viagra-enabled love affair with a woman half his age. But it's his movement from race to race in youth that people will remember best, as Roth intended, and as director Robert Benton understands.
"Passing" in this way was once fairly common, much discussed in the black press. Brent Staples, a black writer for The New York Times, recently cited a demographer's estimate that more than 150,000 blacks "sailed away permanently into whiteness during the 1940s."
White moviegoers will see the mother-and-son dialogue in The Human Stain as tragic, Staples wrote, but black moviegoers of a certain age will also find it familiar.
Roth created Coleman's story by re-imagining the life of Anatole Broyard, a well-known New York writer who was born to a black family in 1920, abandoned them, and for the rest of his life passed as white. A 1996 New Yorker article, in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. revealed Broyard's secret, made painful reading. Obviously, Broyard's break for freedom involved courage. Just as obviously, it involved severe cruelty. Because he couldn't bear to become "a Negro writer," he kept the secret all his life. This meant that he robbed his mother of grandchildren and his children of a grandmother as well as an aunt, an uncle and cousins. He wrote a memoir but omitted the most crucial fact, which remained secret till after he died.
The escape from ethnic roots has sometimes dominated Roth's work. In 1959 his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, satirized the Jews of Newark he knew in boyhood. It looked to many readers like a parting shot at the Jewish world; Roth didn't want to be "a Jewish writer," just a writer.
His next two novels took him some distance from Jewish concerns. Soon, though, he was writing about Jews again, and he's never stopped. In 1993 he confessed that this still surprised him. He could not stop writing about "the topic whose obsessive examination I had always thought I could someday leave behind ... that topic called the Jews." Eventually he realized that they left a mountain of rich material on his doorstep. In the end the last thing he wanted was to forget them. Instead, he embraced ethnic identity as a central theme in his magnificent literary career.
Some of his concern comes through in Benton's film, which is better than it might have been but never quite holds together. It may well be that Roth is unfilmable; of his many books, only Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint have been made into movies. (At least one more attempt is in the works: Next spring, Phillip Noyce will direct American Pastoral, based on the most admired of Roth's recent novels.)
The great quality of Roth's books, his commanding authorial presence, can't be transferred to the screen, and it's hard to find a cinematic equivalent. Benton's attempts, which often involve having the characters dance (presumably like Roth's prose dances), don't do the job. These scenes tend to be self-conscious and overlong, as if the director imagined they would work eventually if he just gave them enough time.
Benton also can't escape two disastrous failures of casting. Roth describes his main female character, a janitor and farmhand, as a thin, angular woman with a ponytail and the severely sculptured features of old New England churchwomen. For that part they cast Nicole Kidman, whose valiant attempt at credibility never succeeds. And Anthony Hopkins, who plays Coleman Silk at age 71, doesn't look even slightly like Wentworth Miller, his younger self, and doesn't talk like him either. We're left trying to believe that the young fellow from East Orange, N.J., not only becomes a white man, he becomes a Welshman, too.
But say this for The Human Stain: Though it fails often, it tackles something large, beautiful and terrible. Not an event we see every day at the movies.