Movie Review: “O”

(This is a rerun of a post from 2010–I was reminded of this movie by Paula Marantz Cohen’s WSJ article about teaching ‘Othello’)

Odin James–“O”–is a high-school basketball star. His friend Hugo also plays for the team, though not on O’s level. When O singles out another player–Michael–for special recognition, Hugo’s already-high jealously level reaches a fever pitch.

Roger, a wealthy but awkward and widely-disliked student, is hopelessly in love with O’s girlfriend, Desi. Hugo enlists him in a plot which he sells to Roger as a way of luring Desi away from O…but his real intent is to destroy both O and Michael, with Desi as collateral damage.

Does the plot sound a little bit familiar?

This is, of course, “Othello,” set in an American prep school instead of in Venice, and with the title character as an athlete rather than a military commander.

O is Othello (Mekhi Phifer)
Desi is Desdemona (Julia Stiles)
Hugo is Iago (Josh Hartnett)
Roger is Rodrigo (Elden Henson)
Michael is Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan)
Emily is Emilia (Rain Phoenix)
The basketball coach, nicknamed “Duke,” is the Duke (Martin Sheen)

No attempt is made to use Shakespearean language, which was probably a wise decision. While this adaptation may sound contrived from the above description, I think it actually works very well. (The film was released in 2001.)

There are a few interesting differences between the film and the original play, as well as some interesting angles for transforming Renaissance Venice into a modern high school:

(1)In the movie, Hugo/Iago is the coach’s son, which plays an important role in his jealousy of O/Othello. There is no such relationship or motivation in the play.

(2)In the play, Iago’s hate of Othello and of Michael Casio is driven largely by Othello’s decision to choose Casio, rather than Iago, as his principal lieutenant. The recognition/elevation of Michael is also an important factor in the movie–however, in the play, Othello’s promotion decision is based largely on factors which Iago, with some justice, sees as extraneous: book-learning and family/social connections rather than combat experience. Hugo/Iago suffers from no such social-class disadvantage in the movie.

(3)In the play, Iago convinces Othello that he, Iago, understands more about the true nature of Venetian women than Othello the Moor–an outsider to Venice–possibly can, and that hence, Othello had better listen to Iago’s advice. In the movie, this turns into an assertion by Hugo that O…the only African-American in the school…needs to pay attention to Hugo’s greater experience with white women (“They are all horny snakes,” he warns O.)

(4)In the play, Michael Casio is portrayed in a very positive way. In the film, he comes across as more than a bit of a jerk.

(5)Like the play, the movie ends with the murder of Desi and Emily/Emilia and the suicide of O/Othello…but whereas in the play, Michael survives and is designated as Governor at the end, in the movie he is shot and it is left ambiguous whether or not he survives. I think Shakespeare perhaps intended the elevation of Michael Casio at the end to symbolize the continuity of society and of proper authority: there is no such symbolism in the film. The ending of the film is at least as dark as that of the play, and that’s pretty dark.

An interesting sound track, ranging from hip-hop to opera.

Certainly not a substitute for the original, but very well worth seeing, in my opinion.

3 thoughts on “Movie Review: “O””

  1. I recall thinking that the Branagh Othello (w/ Fishburne in the lead role) was just completely emotionally brutal. One of those “it’s so good but I can’t possibly watch it again, it’s too painful” movies.

    I don’t think you can do Othello at this point in America, unlike even 20 years ago, because the only thing that an audience would see is race. That is not progress.

  2. Brian…”I don’t think you can do Othello at this point in America, unlike even 20 years ago, because the only thing that an audience would see is race. That is not progress.”

    That would certainly seem likely…but read Paula Cohen’s piece. She was teaching Othello to a mixed audience of college students and local community people, many if not most of whom were clearly black.

  3. author would probably recommend an Othello adaptation performed by chickens. you can safely ignore any opinion he voices…

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