O ran into problems right off the bat. It was actually filmed in 1999, but its release date was originally right after the Columbine shootings, so the film was postponed for two years. Even then the themes of the Othello story with murder, assault, betrayal, and suicide, all placed in a high school setting, were bound to push some people’s buttons. Added to that is the fact that the lead character’s full name is Odin James, which abbreviates to O.J. – as in O.J. Simpson, who had a very famous murder trial a few years prior. And any time there is racial violence, as there is in this film, it is going to stir almost everyone up. This movie earned its R rating.
For those people who are familiar with the Othello story, here are the analogue characters in O: Mekhi Phifer (E.R.) plays the Othello character, who is named Odin James, or just O for short; Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor) plays the Iago character, who is named Hugo Goulding; Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now) plays The Duke, who is basketball coach Duke Goulding, on whose team both O and Hugo play; Julia Stiles plays the Desdemona character, who is named Desi Brable. She is O’s girlfriend and the daughter of Dean Brable, who is played by John Heard (Big). He is the Brabantio character. Also in the film is Andrew Keegan (10 Things I Hate About You) as Michael Cassio, who is the Cassio character. He is O’s friend and also a basketball player.
I won’t go too deep into the plot because it would be redundant for those who already know Othello and it would probably be too complicated to follow by only reading a text description for those who do not know Othello. The movie is not too complicated to follow when you are watching it, though.
O is the only black student at an upper class prep school. He is the star of the basketball team. Also on the team are Hugo and Michael. The team is coached by Hugo’s father, but he treats O better than his own son. After one game he particularly singles O out for praise and a reward. O shares that reward with Michael, but not Hugo. In his jealousy, Hugo decides to ruin both O and Michael.
Adding to Hugo’s hatred is that O is in an interracial relationship with Desi, the most popular girl in school. Hugo first engineers a fight between O and Michael, and then manipulates Michael into trying to use Desi to win back O’s friendship. Of course, Hugo then uses those actions to try to convince O that Desi is cheating on him with Michael. Things escalate.
As you might imagine, this is not a happy, sunny, feel good kind of story, nor did Shakespeare intend it to be. The director of the film is Tim Blake Nelson, a man known more for his acting (O Brother Where Art Thou, The Good Girl) than for his directing, but he does a good job here. Nelson does not shy away from showing a black man and white woman being intimate with each other, nor with O getting violent with Desi when he suspects her.
This would already raise the blood pressure of some people, but there is also a scene that combines both sex and violence that will definitely get a rise out of most people. I do not consider these scenes gratuitous, though. The original play is not exactly known for its lack of violence, and simply having a “moor” and a white woman as lovers would have been very controversial in its day. (The DVD also contains a 1920s movie version of Othello where the character’s dark skin is explained as being from having an Egyptian father and a Spanish mother – both still controversial when combined with a romantic relationship with a white woman.)
The three principal performers (Phifer, Hartnett and Stiles) do a good job with the dense material. Stiles and Phifer especially do good jobs with what had to be some tough scenes for them to film.
If you are looking for some lighthearted teen film, then this is definitely not for you. If you are offended by the themes I described above then you probably also will want to avoid this film. For Othello fans, this won’t make you forget traditional adaptations, but you may be interested in seeing how they translated parts of the play to the setting. For everyone else, I recommend you give this film a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars