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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: August ::
The Moor Shoots Hoops
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2083  Friday, 31 August 2001

From:           Richard Burt <
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Date:           Friday, 31 Aug 2001 06:53:31 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        NYTimes.com Article: The Moor Shoots Hoops

The Moor Shoots Hoops
By ELVIS MITCHELL

But wherefore do not you a mightier way/ Make war upon this bloody
tyrant, Time?" So Shakespeare starts his Sonnet XVI. The distributors of
"O" sought to defeat Time by simply waiting for a media storm to
dissipate. Not much of a stratagem, since "O," the director Tim Blake
Nelson's updating of "Othello" set in an American prep school, was made
so long ago than Mekhi Phifer could still get away with playing a
teenager - well, almost. Filming was completed in 1999, the same year as
the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, and the picture made
Miramax, the distributing company, nervous because it feared the gun
violence in "O" might incite copycat gunplay.

Lions Gate is finally bringing the film to theaters. Mr. Phifer has the
title role in Brad Kaaya's adaptation. In trying to make "Othello" more
lifelike and bring it down to a younger audience -in effect, to make it
more democratic - the adaptation has rendered the material artless. And
"O" has been beaten to the punch by so many other movies that the
picture feels utterly superfluous.

The title character has been christened Odin, or O, a black basketball
star and an athletic scholarship recruit to an all-white private high
school. A shot-caller from the floor, O is a decent guy whose status on
the team provokes jealousy in the Iago figure, Hugo (Josh Hartnett), who
schemes to do O in by any means necessary. That includes preying upon
the stir caused by O's romantic pursuit of a white girl, Desi (Julia
Stiles). "White girls are snakes, bro," Hugo whispers to Odin.

Film versions of "Othello" have provoked more than their share of
controversy. The plot's racial and sexual overtones still produced an
emotional boil in 1995; when the trailer for Oliver Parker's version ran
before a showing of "Waiting to Exhale" at the Magic Johnson Theater in
Los Angeles, I heard a black woman gasp, "I know Larry Fishburne's not
about to kiss a white woman." The real shame was that even by 1995, only
a few black actors had been filmed playing Shakespeare's Moor, with Mr.
Fishburne one of the few to portray him in a classical movie adaptation.

Moving "Othello" to a basketball court certainly sounds more interesting
than shifting "The Taming of the Shrew" to a Los Angeles-area high
school, as did the makers of "10 Things I Hate About You," which also
featured Ms. Stiles.

The idea of Shakespeare's mythic black man as an intimidator on the
backboards makes sense. Even though many private school teams now have
African-American players, such an idea is an ingenious way of making
Othello's physical authority, and everyone's reaction to it, part of the
drama. Some of Odin's thunder was stolen when "Finding Forrester" -
which used the motif of the inner city African-American youth playing
hoops at a private school as a subplot - preceded Mr. Nelson's film to
the multiplexes.

Still, the concept of Othello's lording it over the guards in front of
cheering crowds sounded workable. The film strains to comment on race in
the way that kids can pretend to be guileless and still draw blood.
(Probably the last black athlete to possess the knowing grimace of
danger in a way that embodied Othello was Sonny Liston. In that drama,
though, Muhammad Ali was a combination of Iago and Hotspur from "Henry
IV, Part 1.")

I hoped Mr. Kaaya would use as his catalyst the outraged remarks that
Isaiah Thomas made during the N.B.A. playoffs in 1988 - that black
players were still thought of as instinctive while white players like
Larry Bird were considered smart. Perhaps this might be a way of getting
at what Kenneth Tynan once described as Othello's "concealing within him
racks on which to stretch himself and those about him until the
excruciated lyric cry was released; and bearing in his baggage explosive
coils of taut, dangerous springs."

This colloquial adaptation has been deprived of any such texture; all
the conflicts have been laid out in fairly simple terms, as if the
writer was in a hurry to get to the point before the butterlike topping
on the audience's popcorn congealed. The story has been shaved down so
that exhibitors can fit in as many showings as possible, and one of the
most important things missing from "O" is subtext. After a languorous
first 40 minutes that gives time to nothing except Hugo's fixation on
hawks, the picture vaults into a violent climax.

Mr. Phifer is a quick young actor but lacks the presence to dominate the
screen in the way the role requires; though as an athlete he looms
large, he's oblivious to his effect. (Mr. Phifer is much smaller than
the high schoolers who become hoops stars nowadays; he'd be like Muggsy
Bogues compared to these hormonal giants.)

Mr. Phifer seems humbled by the part - the wrong pivot, since "Othello"
is about a proud man being humbled, and it was this heavyweight persona
that probably affronted and roused the audiences of Shakespeare's era
seeing the play for the first time.  (Pro athletes are now celebrated
for Othello-size bravado, even though Allen Iverson, with his
quicksilver shifts of mood, seems to be playing out a variation of
Othello these days.)

Odin gets to make a few forceful dunks to display his athleticism, but
by that time he's so addled by Iago's influence, which includes cocaine,
that the movie has long since stopped making any dramatic sense. The
smaller scenes, when the tribal rites of the teenagers are examined,
have a life of their own. But these moments aren't epic or particularly
Shakespearean. As good as the romantic clinches between Mr. Phifer and
Ms. Stiles are, audiences sitting through them may feel they've seen the
actress in something with low- wattage racial tension before, namely
"Save the Last Dance."

One of the biggest problems with "O" is that its volatility has been
erased. Hugo's Iago motivation is that he feels he has been displaced by
Odin in his own home. His cold, withdrawn father (Martin Sheen), who is
also the team's coach, treats O like a son.  When Odin receives the
M.V.P. award, Hugo is consumed with rage, though it is never clear if he
was unjustly ignored or if he is deluded about his place on the team.
Either scenario would provide more dramatic motivation than eliding the
point, which is what "O" does.

And we wait for the movie to deal with the way hip-hop culture has been
utterly absorbed into the lives of middle-class white kids, but "O"
doesn't touch on that, either.

The low-key instincts that served Mr. Nelson so well in his 1997
directorial debut, the chilling "Eye of God," help in setting a moody,
anxious tone. As a director, Mr. Nelson is attracted to provocative
material: the unsettling "Eye of God," about a brutal murder in the
Oklahoma Bible belt, raises goose flesh that it takes weeks to lose.

"O" apparently drew him for similar reasons, but watching this picture
is like arriving at a volcano a few weeks after an eruption. An
adaptation of "Othello" should be a series of rumbles building up to the
big conflagration. The damage here is measly by comparison.

"O" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian)
for violence, strong language, drug use and for what Shakespeare called
the beast with two backs.

O

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson; written by Brad Kaaya, based on
Shakespeare's "Othello"; director of photography, Russell Lee Fine;
edited by Kate Sanford; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Dina
Goldman; produced by Eric Gitter, Anthony Rhulen and Daniel L.  Fried;
released by Lions Gate Films. Running time: 91 minutes. This film is
rated R.

WITH: Mekhi Phifer (Odin James), Josh Hartnett (Hugo Goulding), Julia
Stiles (Desi Brable), Martin Sheen (Coach Duke Goulding), Andrew Keegan
(Michael Casio), Rain Phoenix (Emily) and Elden Henson (Roger).
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