Movie Review – The Human Stain (2003)

Director: Robert Benton

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary SInise, Ed Harris, Wentworth Miller, Clark Gregg, Jacinda Barrett, Harry Lennix, Anna Deavere Smith, Kerry Washington

Colman Silk, a classics professor (Hopkins) gets dismissed for a wrongful racism charge. Shortly after this his wife dies and he basically loses everything good in his life. He reaches out to a reclusive author (Sinise) in the hopes that he’ll write the story of Silk’s dismissal and prove that he was innocent. Elsewhere, Silk meets a cleaner who is about twenty years younger than him. Faunia (Kidman) has her own troubles and complexities, not least of which is a furious ex-husband (Harris). As the two lovers grow closer and share their past a dark secret from SIlk’s own life comes out, something that he never even told his wife. 

The Human Stain manages to keep the tension and suspense alive through the entirety of the film and this is aided by good performances by quality actors. Hopkins and Kidman work well together and they are both good at showing the complex layers of their characters, and the your opinions of them definitely change over time. The film also contains flashbacks, where a younger Silk is played by Wentworth Miller and these remained engaging as Miller was great at showing his characters inner turmoil. 

I liked how Silk and Faunia played off each other and how, at first, they seem complete opposites but as you learn more you realize they have much more in common. One of the themes is that we create our own prisons through our prejudices and fears, and both these characters have given up something from their past. The romance begins as something casual but it transforms into a tender story where they both share something intimate, things that they can’t share with anyone else and it all feels genuine. I think the theme of being a prisoner is presented well and I like how the flashbacks are woven into the narrative. However, I do feel the film may have been improved if we had seen some flashbacks from Faunia’s life, as I felt that some claims about her were unreliable. 

But the main issue is one of race, and this will cause some controversy. Through the flashbacks we learn that actually Colman Silk is black. This threw me for a loop because Wentworth Miller and Anthony Hopkins are clearly caucasian. At first it seemed absurd and it took me out of the movie completely, but I’m assuming there must be some precedent. I know genetics can often throw up surprises, and the casting people cast light-skinned black people as the rest of Silk’s family, but is it possible for two members of an ethnicity to have a child that appears as a completely different ethnicity? I can understand dormant genes and maybe there are certain traits carried over, but as I was watching it struck me as a conceit and it does require a suspension of disbelief. However, it does lead to some powerful moments between Silk and his family as he struggles to deal with his place in the world. 

Yet this also raises another problem as the film then becomes about racial issues. While it provides an ironic twist on why Silk got fired from his job, it does mean that The Human Stain becomes about discrimination yet the film is populated and dominated by caucasian actors. 

Aside from that I enjoyed The Human Stain. I found it to be an involving character drama that slowly revealed more complex issues. In some areas it makes questionable choices and I do think Faunia’s past could have been fleshed out with flashbacks as well but overall I think it’s a good film.

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6 thoughts on “Movie Review – The Human Stain (2003)

  1. Actually, Wentworth Miller is part African American, along with a whole host of other nationalities. I checked out his bio years ago when he played the lead role in the Prison Break series.

    • Oh really? Thanks for the info. Then I guess my question of whether it is actually possible was answered by one of the cast himself! I wonder if they knew that when they cast him or whether it was just a happy coincidence.

  2. I really enjoyed this movie when I watched it a decade ago. Nice analysis here. I agree with your comment about Caucasian actors playing African-American.
    It would have been better if a light skinned African man played the older Silk at least. Of course Wentworth Miller has a small percentage of black roots, so he was OK.

    So far as genes are concerned, I don’t know about Africans, but here in South Asia, you get both fair and dark skinned people. I am pretty dark, but my parents and sister are all fair. My paternal grandfather is very very dark, my paternal grandmother was pretty dark, and my maternal grandfather was quite dark as well, but my mother’s mother is very very fair (we call her European, for she looks white (almost Nordic) especially with her snow white hair and sharp features).

    • Thanks for the reply and the information! The crazy world of genetics huh. Goes to show just how silly things like discrimination and judging people by the color of their skin really are!

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