Tag Archives: Passing

The Human Stain

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Coleman Silk has problems. His wife has just died, he has resigned from his job of 35 years under accusations of racism, he is sleeping with an inconvenient woman half his age. And he’s black. Sort of.

 

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Coleman Silk, the lead character in the 2003 film The Human Stain, is an interesting study of a man caught between two worlds for his entire adult life. He is, on the surface, an older, Jewish professor leading a life of academic gentility whose only concern seems to be the truancy of two students in his Classics course. That academic world, however, is rocked when, in a moment of casual query, he asks if anyone in the room has seen the students, “…or are they spooks.” That word, “spooks,” becomes the fulcrum on which Coleman’s life tilts as he is instantly branded a racist and angrily resigns his post under a dark cloud of politically correct, asinine hogwash.

This would be enough to bring anyone to the brink, but the other side of Coleman’s particular fulcrum is that the entire affair is made more problematic for Coleman and the audience when it is revealed that he is a black man who has been passing for white for the last 50 years. Nevermind that Coleman could have ended his employment woes by asserting that he is, in fact, black- that point is driven home in the film’s final moments- it is his journey to reaching the literal point of no return that is more worthy of exploration.

It is easy enough to reconcile that the strongest thread of the film is secrets and the cost of living with them. But less easy to reconcile is is the notion of the “Stain” of the title. There are the stains of death and destruction, the stain of a life of lies, the stain of failure and the stain of the loss of family. All of these are important to the characters at one point or another, and in the cases of Coleman and his girlfriend Faunia, all at the same time.

Coleman’s stain begins in 1948 where we meet a teenaged Coleman ‘Silky’ Silk, already skilled at living a dual life as, on one hand, a boxer and on the other hand, a student seemingly on his way to Howard University. However the sudden death of his father marks a turning point for Coleman, as the only real impediment to life as a white man is removed. With the stroke of a pen, his life and the lives of his family are altered forever as be goes from being Coleman Silk ‘Negro’, to just Coleman.

 

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Coleman’s betrayal causes his mother to label him a “murderer,” and this is another thread, that of “murder,” that runs through the film, to great effect. The lives of all presented are touched by this in some way, whether literal or figurative, and these deaths tie together a difficult story with as neat a bow as possible. It is ironic that the one person in which Coleman has confided his dark secret, his fantastically troubled girlfriend, Faunia, is also the one murdered with him, thereby (almost) taking his secret to both their graves.

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Pinky

Pinky movie poster
Set in a backwoods Mississippi town in the 1940’s, “Pinky” tells the story of a light skinned black woman who returns to her birthplace amid questions, secrecy and complicated racial politics.
Patricia Johnson, or Pinky, as she is known by those in her hometown, has retuned to her roots after completing her nursing education in the North. While she is received joyously by her dark skinned grandmother, played by the remarkable Ethel Waters, her arrival is also fraught with questions regarding the conflict and embarrassment of her passing while away at school. Pinky is immediately shamed and made to repent, in a way, for the sin of passing by enduring difficulties that would have been non-issues had she been a white woman.
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Pinky, whose name can only be a reference to the ‘pinkness’ of her skin, is thrust into situations in her town where she is, at first, taken for a white woman, treated with decency, and when her true background is revealed, then treated with hostility and violence. She goes from protected to detained by the police when she is found to be black, and her body is violated by those same police and other white men who see her only as a thing to be disrespected and abused.
It is no wonder, then, that Pinky decided to pass for white as soon as she had escaped the clutches of the ultra racist South for the somewhat less obviously racist haven of the North. While the audience can easily understand Pinky’s motives for passing, what is more subversive to the plot, is that Pinky herself knows why she has done what she’s done. She hasn’t even de-boarded her train northward before she has passed, and while she is shamed for it later, she is also aware of the caste system that she is both victim and beneficiary of.
If there is a weakness in the film, it is in the casting of Jeanne Crain as Pinky. It was perhaps an unavoidable dilemma, as the two black actresses of the time who were considered ‘black, but not too black’, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, were, in this instance, too dark skinned to believe as passing for white. This left producer Daryl F. Zanuck with the choice of Crain, who, as a white woman, lacks both the frame of reference and internal turmoil to contend with the subject matter. This practice was not new, nor has it abated, but it is perhaps especially contentious in a film specifically, and not tangentially, about race.
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Although not a weakness, but of note, is the character of Pinky herself. Whether by design or by acting and directing choices, Pinky, with her light skin and all, is a member of Strong Black Woman club. Through her struggle, and there must be a struggle, ┬áto obtain justice for herself and uphold the pride with which she has been imbued, she is also made to uplift her entire race. In the end, Pinky, by her proud affirmation of her true identity, has become the “credit” to her race she was always meant to be.