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Casting Hopkins stains film industry

| Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

For some reason, Hollywood picked Sir Anthony Hopkins to play a light-skinned black college professor who passes for white to further his professional career. The movie is "The Human Stain."

Light-skinned blacks passing for white to attain advantages in society is a delicate subject, one so sensitive that only such black filmmakers as Mario Van Peebles and Spike Lee have felt comfortable admitting the practice exists.

For the most part, white filmmakers have avoided the topic. The last movie focusing on the human costs of passing was "Imitation of Life," which premiered in 1959.

In those days, filmmakers seldom tackled racial issues, figuring audiences would be better served with endless tales of domestic bliss and cowboys popping caps at Indians. Directors such as John Ford didn't even use Native Americans in such Western epics as "Fort Apache." Ford used white actors wearing thick suntan makeup rather than give jobs to unemployed Native Americans living on reservations just miles from where he shot most of his movies.

That Hollywood chose to cast Hopkins as a black man struggling with serious self-hate issues shows just how much things haven't changed. Do filmmakers still expect audiences to be dumb enough to buy this upper-crust British nobleman as a career-obsessed African-American• Or were they simply uncomfortable with the thought of staging steamy love scenes between actress Nicole Kidman and a real black actor•

In fact, pre-release publicity for "The Human Stain" has focused more heavily on Kidman's supposed stretch playing -- gasp! -- a janitor. That apparently is a bigger deal than Hopkins as a homeboy.

If the makers of "The Human Stain" really wanted to add realism to their movie, they could have cast an actor such as the brilliant but underrated Roger Guenveur Smith in the lead role. Smith, a mulatto, often plays characters of uncertain race. Last year, he staged a stirring, one-man play about the life of the late Black Panthers leader Huey P. Newton, another light-skinned black man who struggled to understand where his African heritage and light skin placed him in America.

Smith's spot-on portrayal of Newton played only on Public Broadcasting Service stations, not at first-run movie houses where the curious or the just plain bored can catch "The Human Stain" when it opens this weekend.

I hope that until filmmakers can realistically approach this controversial topic, Americans of all races will choose to pass on this "Stain." It's going to take more than big-name stars to make sense of our enduring confusion over skin tone.

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