reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, August 30, 2001
"O" is the story of a black sports star living in a privileged all-white world, who, in a jealous (but deluded) rage, kills the blonde beauty he loves. From this summary, you'd be perfectly justified in assuming that "O" is short for "Orenthal," as in "Orenthal James Simpson." Still, "O" is actually a serious-minded updating of Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello the Moor of Venice."
Yet, "O's" setting - a prep school where NBA-bound basketball superstar Odin James is the only African-American - and its honest perspective on contemporary race relations seem to have drawn some inspiration from the tale of the Moor of Brentwood.
Mekhi Phifer ("Soul Food") stars as the doomed hero. Julia Stiles ("Save the Last Dance") is Odin's white girlfriend Desi (Desdemona). Josh Hartnett (last seen bombing in "Pearl Harbor") plays Odin's envious teammate Hugo (Iago), who deceives Odin into believing Desi is making the beast with two backs with Odin's "go-to guy" Michael Casio (Michael Cassio). Martin Sheen ("West Wing") is Coach Duke Goulding (the Duke of Venice).
Like Odin, screenwriter Brad Kaaya grew up as the one black in a white school. Probably only a black writer could get away with such unfashionable candor about race relations in post-racist America.
Working with director Tim Blake Nelson (who is best known as an actor for almost stealing "O Brother, Where Art Thou" from George Clooney and John Turturro), Kaaya gave the actors modern colloquial lines, but preserved almost every twist in Shakespeare's melodramatic plot.
The conventional modern interpretation depicts Othello as being brought down by Venice's racial bias. Othello believes Iago's lies because he can't imagine Desdemona could be satisfied with a black husband. Society's prejudice that Black Isn't Beautiful has undermined Othello's self-esteem.
Of course, this would make no sense in a version set in modern America, where African-American sports stars are our reigning symbols of masculinity. So, in a startling reversal of the standard approach, Kaaya focuses instead on providing Hugo/Iago with a modern motivation. It's not Odin, the black basketball prodigy, who is plagued by fears of his own racial inferiority, but Hugo, the white "utility" player.
The movie uses blatant symbolism to communicate its central theme of white Hugo's jealousy of black Odin's manly talents. The movie opens (and also closes) with a shot of the cooing white doves that roost in the school's belltower. Sounding like an Air Jordan ad, Hugo explains in a voice-over, "All my life I always wanted to fly. Always wanted to live like a hawk. I know you're not supposed to be jealous of anything, but to take flight, to soar above everyone and everything, now that's living."
Director Nelson then cuts from the white doves to the lone black hawk that is the mascot of the Hawks basketball team, which is losing by one point with half a minute to go. Coach Duke Goulding designs a play that uses his son Hugo as a decoy to free up Odin, who floats like a hawk to the basket with the game-winner.
Later, desperate to match Odin's flying ability, Hugo shoots up with illegal steroids (synthetic testosterone). He boasts that the fake male hormones have added three inches to his vertical leap.
In print, these symbols of Hugo's racial envy of Odin appear obvious, yet in the current cultural environment, Kaaya's depiction of a wealthy white youth who envies a poor black athlete was so unexpected that I didn't figure out "O" until the next day. And the other dozen reviews of "O" that I've read were even more clueless as to what the movie is actually about.
That's because black superiority at basketball is something that we see constantly on TV, but are never supposed to mention in polite society. The only book on the topic has a particularly apt title: Jon Entine's "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk about It."
Kaaya's approach, however, leaves open the question of why the star suspects Desi would cheat on him with young Michael Casio, who is clearly not in Odin James' league. Of course, Ron Goldman wasn't in Orenthal James' league, either.
Sadly, "O" is far more enjoyable to think about than to watch. Those few who are intimately familiar with "Othello" will be impressed by how Kaaya manages about 80 percent of the time to make incidents from Shakespeare's rickety story plausible in a modern setting. Most of the audience, however, will be alienated by the 20 percent of the scenes when even his skills falter.
Worse, director Nelson doesn't understand how to stage a tragedy. As Aristotle explained, for the audience to fully experience a catharsis at the end, the characters must begin as larger than life figures of glamour. Othello must be charismatic, Desdemona lovable, and Iago tantalizing. Instead, Nelson sets a glum tone. He even has his beautiful young stars made up to look less attractive than they are in real life. As Dave Barry might ask, who gave Josh Hartnett such a ragged haircut? Beavers?
Rated R for a protracted sex scene, bad language, and the same shocking violence as in "Othello."