Prison Break is one of the hottest dramas on network television, and is one of only a handful of non-juvenile Fox shows (if you don't count "24," the network's best is House, which also has a Princeton connection, being set in the town and using the Frist Student Center as "Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital"). Of course the best show in TV is HBO's The Wire--deal with it!!!
In 2003, "Prison Break" 's star, former Tigertone and Daily Princetonian cartoonist Wentworth Miller III, '95, was cast as "young Coleman Silk" in The Human Stain, based on the bestselling novel by Phillip Roth. Little did anyone know that he was more fit for the role than on the strength of his audition. He had an intense personal connection to this light-skinned black character, played as a 70 year old by Anthony Hopkins (the cast included Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise). Not only did Miller possess a similar racial background, but he also caused a controversial incident during his time at Princeton, when he was mistakenly believed to have written a derogatory remark about African-Americans, similar to the situation with his character in the movie. The movie is set in 1997 (around Clinton-Lewinsky affair and the pinnacle of the "politically correct-sexual politics" milieu). In the film Prof. Coleman Silk, lecturing on The Iliad, remarks about two students who have habitually skipped his 9a.m. Lit class: "Are they real, or are they spooks?" The two students, it turns out, are black. Silk had been passing for white since he was a teenager in the 1940s, following the death of his father, a Pullman porter. Student groups and a petty department head demand Silk's head. (FYI, the love scenes between Kidman and Hopkins are a little weird, to say the least. This was Nicole's first major flick, post-midget Tom and pre-second round of unneeded cosmetic surgery, and she looked damn good; I think this was when she was shacked up with Lenny Kravitz).
In 1994, Wentworth Miller drew a cartoon for the Prince featuring Cornel West, who was then a Princeton professor but had announced his hiring-away by Harvard (and of course he comes back with Kwame Appiah in tow thanks to then Crimson President/Dickhead-in-charge Larry Summers). The cartoon depicted "Muffy," a prep-school-bred white Harvard student, imagining her first class with West, who is saying, "Today's lecture is entitled, Rhythm--Why None of You Have It, and How You Can Get It." It also described West as "newly purchased," which is an innocent and oft-used academic term akin to free agency in sports. Of course, "newly purchased" was taken as a reference to slavery. Wenty, you should have known better...
Within days the Prince had run angry letters signed by dozens of students and faculty members, including Toni Morrison (according to the New York Times, Toni sent a note directly to Miller's room in Mathey College!) Adding kerosene to the flame was the age itself: in '94 the right wing of the GOP had been swept into power under Newt Gingrich's banner. Couple that with the ascendency of the Harold Shapiro regime at Princeton; opinions may differ, but many folks think Shapiro didn't have the insight, sensivity or empathy for, well, anyone. Too bad you can't clone Robert Goheen, the best President Princeton ever had (including that scholarly cracker from Staunton, Virginia, Mr. Woodrow Wilson).
Back to the story. Things got so out of hand in this supreme example of life presaging art and art responding with irony ten years later, that a campuswide symposium resulted. That's the usual college administrators' weasel way out, rather than just telling folks to calm the fuck down and tolerate each other. Miller, who everyone assumed was white, became a campus pariah. Like the elder "Coleman Silk," Miller declined to bring up his own African-American heritage as a defense.
Before he was cast for "Prison Break," Miller got some notoriety for being cast as the voice of the HAL-3000-like fighter-bomber computer in Stealth (he also linked to co-star hottie Jessica Biel; other co-star Jamie Foxx reportedly stated "I knew this boy was a redbone [light skinned or mulatto] the second he started drinking Cutty at the wrap party...). He remarked on the Princeton controversy and the bizarre ironic tie-in with The Human Stain:
"To be perfectly clear, 'passing' is something that has never crossed my
mind. Instead of stepping forward and explaining what I'd meant by the cartoon
and positing my own racial background as evidence that I'd really meant no harm,
I chose to remain silent. My attitude was, if they don't get it, I don't have to
explain it, which was my way of saying that if they don't get me, I don't have
to explain me. The people who knew me on campus and knew my background knew
where I was coming from, but I think for most people I was just a name in the
paper, and they probably assumed I was white."
Nevetheless, after filming The Human Stain, Miller wrote a letter to Cornel West apologizing for the cartoon. Prof. West didn't reply. Interestingly, Cornel showed up at the movie's New York premiere, as he is a close friend of African American actress, author, Stanford professor and performance artist Anna Deavere Smith, who was lauded by critics for her portrayal of Silk's mother, a nurse. t the afterparty, he apparently sought Miller out, gave him a bear hug, a kiss on the cheek and any number of permutations of the black-brotha handshake.
Was this a sign of foregiveness? Perhaps not.
In September, 2006, at the first big conclave of black Princeton alumni, Cornel West mused to a group of us on the woeful state and quality of African American representation and portrayals and of minorities in general on network TV (including insipid, pandering gameshows, "reality" TV and The Flavor of Love). He bemoaned "Prison Break" as typical Hollywood--creating a supermax prison where almost none of the inmates are black or Latino and where all of the major characters are white...and of course the only men with the brains to plan an escape are white. (emphasis added). Now, the right wing/Fox News interpretation of this would be: "Aha! West is full of crap because wouldn't he moan louder if the prison scenes have nothing but spooks n spics? Hollywood Jew liberals wouldn't want to offend the blacks!" Actually, entertainment & arts is one of the few areas where the usual labels don't apply and the racism gets truly arcane. No, the "Hollywood way" is exclude people of color so folks in Peoria will watch, unless you want to titillate with stereotypes or other least common denominator demographic pandering. Or you pigeonhole content to the "black" channels, stations, etc. Just don't say "nigger." That gets you ostracized until the smoke clears.
I really don't know what Cornel's comment meant--is he still miffed and thus being snide by backhandedly calling Miller white? Then again, Cornel is so damn flighty...who knows? I doubt Cornel's giving it a second thought right now. Either way Wenty Miller's getting the last laugh. He's representing we Tigers very well in Hollywood. Despite the fact you were a "Tigertone" and thus likely on the DL, I salute you. ;-)