Re: Sheng, Shakespeare, and Olivier's Othello

Michael Meeropol

I'd like to share my experience of teaching about BIRTH OF A NATION in a class entitled Black and White in 20th century America.  OUr goal in making BIRTH OF A NATION available to the students was to situate what we argued (It was team taught with a friend from the English Department -- I am an economic historian by training, economist by Ph D and historian by practice!) was the NADIR of the US experience for black Americans post-emancipation.   We considered the showing of BIRTH OF A NATION in the WHite House in 1915 the symbolic nadir of opportunities for black Americans and the apex of American racism among the white population --- [The rest of the course detailed the struggles from the early 20th century to the 1990s --- they read history books, THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, sections of Native Son, and others I cannot now remember]

Our approach was to announce in advance that the movie was disgusting and that one needed a "strong stomach" to watch it --- and we said a few things about it's historical relationship to what actually happened during Reconstruction and noted that the "heroes" of the film --- the Ku Klux Klan -- were in fact American terrorists who had set back the cause of democracy dramatically by "winning" the battle against the Reconstruction governments of 1866-1877 ...

Thus primed, students knew what to expect.

An attempt to teach about minstrelsey had less success because we did not warn the students that some of the caricature photos that accompanied the TEXT they were reading were so offensive as to strike the six black students (the class had over 40 students so they were a decided minority) as a gut punch.  They confided in us how hurtful just viewing those photographs had been.  We were surprised and chastened --- a simple few sentences before assigning the reading might have headed off that experience.

The poor music professor who showed the Olivier Othello just didn't know enough about American racist traditions --- he was so focused on the fact that the Olivier film is one of the films "most true" to the TEXT of Othello.   Had he read reviews from the original time the film was released he would have seen that it stirred tremendous controversy -- I remember a review in a left wing paper (was it the National Guardian, not sure) entitled OLIVIER'S GROTESQUE OTHELLO -- which argued NOT ONLY against the use of blackface, etc. but also Olivier's interpretation of Othello's character --- the over-emphasis on his VIOLENCE rather than the conflicts within Othello --- his high moral character bedazzled and destroyed by Iago's machinations ....

What a bloody shame.

I do think the students who are screaming for the guy's head should practice more empathy.  I hope had I been on the faculty, I would have come to his defense --- He is not an insensitive privileged white person who grew up in America and should know better --- he's an immigrant who is learning about America as he lives here ....

On Sat, Oct 23, 2021 at 12:43 PM Farans Kalosar <fkalosar101@...> wrote:
Should Olivier's Othello not be shown--or at least not in the way Sheng showed it?   And are we now witnessing the re-ignition of the poisonous, clownish Cancel Culture furore?

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