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Film Review for September 7th
Othello
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, O, now playing at the State Cinemas, at Century Park, and at the Santa Cruz Cinema 9, is Brad Kaava's scripted adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello.  It was made in 1999 but held back from release because it coincided with the shootings at Columbine High.  Miramax then dropped it and now, two years later, Lions Gate has picked it up and released it.  These events have the strange effect of making the film seem to be inspired by Columbine, rather than predating it:  one of its lessons, that ridiculed and alienated high schoolers can be lethal when they get their revenge, certainly seems lifted right out of media reportage about Columbine and other high school shootings.

But this, as we know, is a story about male racial hatred, envy, and jealousy.  In transposing the cast of characters into teenland, it was a stroke of genius to make Odin James, as he's called (echoes of OJ Simpson) not a military hero, but a basketball star, something that also renders plausible his presence as the only black boy in a southern white high school (Odin is played by Mekhi Phifer).  Likewise, Julia Stiles is brilliantly cast as a modern-day and therefore sassy Desi, daughter of the dean of the school.  The Duke is Martin Sheen, the coach, who clearly over-idealizes his best player, while, in an original twist to the tale-and presumably to supply yet another layer of motivation for envy-Hugo (played by babe-of-the-month Josh Hartnett) is the coach's son, a utility man on the team who gets passed over by O in the awards ceremony in favor of you-guessed-it, the Cassio character, Michael Casio, who will also be the "screen" man for the fabricated jealously plot.  Clearly, the writer had a lot of fun with the names and, since none of the language of the play is used, it's good that the film marks its departures from the original in this way. 

The plot remains faithful to the original, perhaps too faithful, since at times we can feel the writer and director straining to find some modern-day plausibility in the motives.  After all, the way jealously takes Othello down seems a bit too "old" for high school, so this version adds reason after reason for his undoing, so much so that it risks confirming rather than questioning the racial stereotypes the play and the movie critically scrutinize.  Likewise, the writer and director seemed to feel that Hugo needed another motive too:  not only the complex envy mixed with desire and racial jealously of the Shakespearean version (which they represent accurately and well), but also Oedipal rivalry and, of course, drugs.  The success of the film's fidelity to Shakespeare turns out, unexpectedly, to be its way of talking about racial difference.  The movie uses its soundtrack at times to provide the commentary on "blackness" that illustrates its mythological dimensions in white society (just as it also uses basketball to make that point);  it also shows how O's all-white context has made him vulnerable, and how racial stereotypes-a source of gentle and amusing banter between the interracial couple-return with a vengeance when mistrust all too easily disrupts their happiness.  In fact, the portrayal of the couple is the most moving thing about this film:  they are believable and believably in love, and they confront the question of their racial difference in a forthright way.  This is what makes the film plausibly tragic when the inevitable occurs. 

Unfortunately, the addition of drugs to the plot --coke in one case, steroids in the other--makes this movie heavy-handedly moralistic and lends to the story of interracial love, friendship, rivalry and hatred a conservative moral cast. O loses it in a way that makes him seem like a madman, and although he claims not to be "from the street," there is a way that he seems to revert to racist type, a reversion that is not successfully salvaged by his tragic speech at the end.  Similarly, a lot of the brooding fascination of Hugo's twisted mind is taken away when the reason for his violence turns out to be largely steroid rage.  Only Desi maintains her composure in a way that seems both true to the original and intelligently updated; Emily, who should be a sympathetic character, is flat, unconvincing and ineloquent as played by Rain Phoenix.  So I guess the movie betrays the symptoms of its own fear of censure and makes a compromise:  the only way it seems to be able to deal with such volatile content is to spin it unmistakably as an anti-drug commercial.  I wish the industry could give its audiences more credit.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001