If you've waited your entire life to see Anthony Hopkins play a black guy, your time has come at last. In The Human Stain, based on a novel of the same name by Philip Roth, Hopkins is cast as Coleman Silk, a prominent classics professor who happens to be a light-skinned African-American -- so light-skinned that virtually no one, not even his wife, knows his true identity. In an irony so delicious it could almost be true, Silk is accused of racism when he uses the word "spooks" to describe two conspicuously absent students who also happen to be African-American. This ridiculous spat costs him not only his job, but also his wife, whose heart gives out upon hearing of the incident.
Does Hopkins seem a strange choice for the role? "Who would you have cast?" asks director Robert Benton, clearly sick of being questioned about the decision at every interview. Had he actually cast a bi-racial actor in the role, "it would have given the secret away. Roth reveals that Coleman Silk is African-American about a third of the way through, and I felt that my loyalty had to be to the Philip Roth novel."
The problem is that the young Coleman Silk is played by Wentworth Miller who is, in fact, bi-racial. I don't think it's a coincidence that Miller's scenes are more convincing and dramatically potent than Hopkins', especially since the latter does not even suppress his trademark Welsh accent for the role. Aside from the seeming incongruousness of his presence, Sir Anthony's part is plagued by script problems. While the flashback sequences are rich and often heartbreaking, the present-day drama is rushed, sketchy, with too many characters and too little time. Silk develops a love affair with a much younger woman (Nicole Kidman), but her character is a complete cipher, and the scenes between the two of them have no momentum.
You may have noticed that this review spilled the beans on The Human Stain's big secret. It's impossible to discuss the film without doing so and despite casting Hopkins to protect the twist, Benton doesn't much care if the critics reveal it. "It's not about that. I think it is about a theme that runs through all of Roth's novels, which is the responsibility we have to ourselves as individuals and the responsibility we have to our communities. The ideal thing you want is that people would go back and see it whether or not they know the secret. I see a lot of movies over and over again... it's not simply the narrative line, but other things that had a richness and depth to it. Sooner or later the secret will be out."
And there are other reasons to see the film. The Human Stain underachieves, but it has moments of devastating insight - watch for the confrontation between young Coleman and his mother -- as well as a plethora of multifaceted ironies. Love it or hate it, but watch for it at Oscar time.