Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Princeton & the Arts: Wenty Miller '95

One of the more ignorant late-night DJs on a local DC hip hop station said something like: "Who is that dude from the Mariah Carey video [Grammy-winning "We Belong Together"]? He's on Prison Break? They say he went to Princeton but no brothas go to Princeton..."

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. ;-)


Snowman said...

I wasn't that impressed with The Human Stain. Haven't seen Prison Break.

Anonymous said...

Hi Christopher,

Sorry to do this so publicly but I couldn't find an email address for you.

I'm co-founder of an anti-racism training company called New Demographic. We write and edit a network of blogs, including Racialicious, about the intersection of race and pop culture. www.racialicious.com

I absolutely love this post on Wentworth Miller (I had no idea he was in a parallel situation to Coleman Silk!) and I wanted to ask if we might be able to cross-post it on our blog, with a link back to yours? We would add a byline that reads:

"by guest contributor Christopher Chambers, originally published at Nat Turner's Revenge"

You will have a permanent, royalty free, non-transferable traditional copyright to all posts you publish on Racialicious.

Please let me know if that would be ok. Thanks so much!

Take care,



Anonymous said...

I don't think he's got any range as an actor. He goes from "intense" to "somewhat intense" to "very intense."

With respect to Cornel West, from what I know he is very bizarre and I am sure he thinks Miller is white.

My daughter reminded me that Miller was in two Mariah Carey videos, not one. I wonder if Mariah found some common experiences with Miller, give their backgrounds?

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I loved the Human Stain b/c of the subject matter. I think Wentworth Miller was good in the movie, but I am a fan of Anthony Hopkins too and I think he was brilliant. I am not a huge fan of Miller's. Beyond the Human Stain, I have only seen him in Prison Break, and I am not a fan of the show. I agree with the post that says he has no range as an actor and I think he does only have three levels of intensity. I would need to see him in something else to make a real judgement on his talent.

As for the racial controvesy, from what I understand Cornel West is a very intense and strange dude. I am often intrigued and never surprised by what he says or does. As for Wentworth, he is just like a guy I know. He was smart enough to know (even at that young age) that his comments would cause some rancor. I was surprised and thrown off by them, until I looked a little deeper at what he was trying to say. He was not being racist, but opinionated. However, if he inadvertently offended someone (West) he was wise to apologize.

Very provocative Chris! Your topics are fabulous.

Anonymous said...

I was impressed with the Human Stain. I was more impressed when I found out the parallels between the multi-racial actor (as green as he is) in his debut and the plot. I also read that Sir Anthony Hopkins studied what little film there was of the young actor so that he could adopt some of his mannerisms, and even wore green contacts. Very cool.

Why is it that a lot of people still put extra pressure on people in the media to "represent" or be role models for their "race". What if they are bi-racial or multi-racial? I find it fascinating that bi-racial entertainment figures like the gorgeous Halle Berry and the talented Alicia Keys, who are both bi-racial are described as "black".

Cornel West is technically right if he is describing the character Michael Scofield as "white", and the power structure of the show. They make a crazy show but it is supposed to be set in the present. Maybe there's a tatoo on Scofield's ass that says "Played by an Actor 33.5% White"...How far do we go with the fractions?

Why does this matter?

Anonymous said...

The last poster asks why biracial actors like Halle Berry and Alicia Keys are described as black. Maybe it's because, without their celebrity status, they (like me and my two siblings who are technically "biracial") would most likely be followed around in stores, be routinely harassed by the police, have to suffer the exclamations of whites who are "amazed" at how "well-spoken and articulate" we are, etc. etc.
In other words, despite my white father, my life doesn't differ from any other black persons, hence my identity as "black" as opposed to "biracial"?

Anonymous said...

I'm the one who posted that question. With bigotry still at large, I guess if you "look black" you're black, and if you "look white" you're white. The world is still not ready for the thousands of bi-racial and multi-racials out there -especially "well spoken" ones like Wentworth Miller who has a "black" father (who I guess is of mixed race himself).

I for one think so-called "mixed-race" people have it pretty hard caught in the middle of people trying to make them choose sides or made to feel badly about part of their heritage. IMHO it should be celebrated, not stigmatized.

Anonymous said...

It's not a matter of "choosing sides". At the end of the day, my allegiance and identity is with that part of my heritage that has historically been and remains oppressed and is still fighting for equality and equity and against racism, white privilege, etc.
It's not the "white" part of me that is despised and maligned in this society, nor is it the "white" part of me I have to defend and uphold against bias, racism, etc.
In this country, it is "blackness" that is stigmatized, not being ."mixed-raced". As a "biracial" black woman, I'm working towards the day when "blackness" is celebrated, not some special "niche" status accorded to "mixed-race" people within the framework of a white racist pecking order.

Anonymous said...

Hey dueling anonymous people--not that long ago you would have been called "niggers." Fine distinctions 'ike "biracial" are a luxury earned by the loss of many lives.

Anonymous said...

Nabila J., I understand your point, although I'd argue that "fine distinctions" like "biracial" are more about the business of "divide and conquer" and only serve to deflect from the real issues that black people face.
Nevertheless, I honor those lost lives by affirming my "blackness" and identifying as a black woman, which is what I am and the reality that I live every day.

meera bowman-johnson said...

I was turned off that Miller was playing a white guy on Prison Break at first. But now, since we know he isn't hiding his ethnicity (like Vin Diesel and Mariah Carey used to do), I'm all for it. Good roles are hard to find for actors of color,period. If his ethnic ambiguity adds to his range then so be it. Also, I would have been even more pissed if he was supposed to be playing a brother up there in prison anyway!

As far as West goes, I hope that he was just talking about Miller's character in Prison Break, not the actor himself. If that was the case he was accurate. But then again Cornell West tends to be kinda out there so you never know...

My husband told me that poet Sonia Sanchez got pissed that Danzy Senna was invited to teach at the Hurston-Wright Summer workshops at Howard one year. I think she said someting like "WHY are they letting that white woman teach here?!?!" I guess to Sanchez, Senna (author of Caucasia who happens to be biracial and black like Miller) looked white to her in the author's photo.

I hate to say it, but our black icons of arts and culture (like West, like Sanchez) are steadily approaching their golden years. Maybe they just aren't as hip to who the young black artists of our generation actually are. No, Prof. West, Prince does not count...

Anonymous said...

Inter-racial relations will never be perfect--but neither will the relations between ANY two people on this planet ever be perfect. Therefore, it is important for minorities to remember that not all conflict with the dominant race has its origins in skin color. It is even more important for the dominant race to put aside preconceived ideas about minorities and look at each individual as a unique human being, with exactly the same capabilities and frailties as themselves.

Vive la difference!

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