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.
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.
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.