No Professor, You Must NOT Apologize For Showing Students Laurence Olivier Playing “Othello” [Corrected]

Olivier Othello

Oh, great: a fake blackface controversy again.

Composer and musician Bright Sheng, is the Chinese-born Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan. When he received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2001, the Foundation described him as “an innovative composer whose skillful orchestrations bridge East and West, lyrical and dissonant styles, and historical and contemporary themes to create compositions that resonate with audiences around the world.”

Sheng screened the 1965 film version of Shakespeare’s “Othello” in his class as part of a lesson about how the tragedy was adapted for the opera. It stars the late Sir Laurence Olivier, widely regarded as the greatest living English actor of his day and a definitive interpreter of Shakespeare, as the tragic hero Othello, a Moor. Some students who saw the film—hell, maybe all of them: they’ve all been indoctrinated into knee-jerk progressive conformity– were upset that Olivier’s face was covered in black make-up, though he was white and the character he was playing is black, so such a disguise would seem to be obligatory. This is the function of what actors call “make-up.”

Students complained to the administration that Olivier’s make-up made them feel “unsafe.” Unsafe from what? From the make-up? From Olivier, who is long-dead? From Iago, the white villain of the play?

The prime mover in this was Olivia Cook, who told the Michigan Daily that she was “stunned.” Cook added that “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

Sheng, who was born and raised in Communist China, may not have understood why blackface is such a trigger for the obsessively woke that they regard dark make-up as racist even when it is necessary and appropriate, but he sure knows what a citizen is supposed to do in an ideological dictatorship like a Michigan, so he grovelled.

“I thought (that) in most cases, the casting principle was based on the music quality of the singers,” Sheng told The Michigan Daily. “Of course, times have changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film. It was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.”

It didn’t do any good, of course: caving to the cancel crowd seldom does. In the course of his apology, Sheng mentioned that he’d cast blacks in musical productions throughout his career. Undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty and staff members then authored an open letter further criticizing Sheng for that, arguing that it “implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.” Now Sheng is not teaching his class.

I have little sympathy for him. Like so many others, he had an opportunity to confront this culture-wide and academia-led attack on the arts, performing freedom and history. The students didn’t know what they were talking about, and were wrong. Sheng was blameless and in the right, until he apologized. Then he joined the villains, just as he would have in his homeland if he quickly announced that “He loved Big Brother” and joined in the oppression of his neighbors and friends.

There is nothing racist about showing a movie, whatever it is, to graduate students. They are old enough and theoretically educated enough to not to feel “threatened,” especially when there is nothing threatening about the film. “Othello” is a classic play, and the professor’s intent was clear and legitimate. The point of the showing was to familiarize the students with “Othello’s” plot and dramatic tensions, and the Olivier version is as good a vehicle for that purpose as any other film adaptation. There is one major film adaptation with a black actor playing “Othello”—I don’t count the version starring Ted Lange of “The Love Boat”—but Oliver’s version is the more famous. Is Sheng supposed to decide that the film with a black actor in the lead is superior to the one with a white actor, based solely on race? That’s racial prejudice, isn’t it?

The make-up is as irrelevant to the professor’s purpose as the costuming. Moreover, wearing dark make-up to play “Othello” isn’t “blackface,” which was a minstrel show device intended to denigrate slaves and freedmen. Othello is the protagonist in the play; the audience is supposed to sympathize with him and be moved at his fate. He is certainly not ridiculed.

Sheng had an opportunity to use this episode to teach many important concepts that are crucial to the arts, including the importance of any actor being allowed to play any role, the importance of artistic freedom, the danger of imposing taboos on the arts, the perils of censorship, and many more, including the history of the play, its productions, and Olivier himself, who like many great actors, set out on a career-long quest to show he could play any role. (He also played a real life, dark-skinned Muslim religious fanatic in the film “Khartoum.”) Marlon Brando was another acting icon took this approach, at one point playing a Japanese houseboy in “Teahouse of the August Moon.” The only thing such efforts might result in an audience member feeling “unsafe” from is a runaway ego.

Sheng had an obligation to make these arguments, and moor—I’m sorry, more. Taboos aren’t rational, they are primitive, emotional, and based on irrational fear. If a professor lacks the courage and conviction to oppose the forces of enforced conformity, mob-think and race-baiting, then he or she lacks the character necessary to be a competent and trustworthy teacher.

Sheng may be a genius, but he’s a coward. He has betrayed his students, his profession, his adopted nation and himself. Protecting and explaining ethical principles is one of his duties as a teacher, and requires the enabling virtues of courage, fortitude, valor, sacrifice. He lacks them all.

Casting Laurence Olivier as “Othello” is justifiable. Casting a weenie as a professor is not.


Sources: Fox News, Reason

13 thoughts on “No Professor, You Must NOT Apologize For Showing Students Laurence Olivier Playing “Othello” [Corrected]

  1. Reading this I think of two quotes almost immediately. The first is from “Hamlet”. “The play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the King”. The complaining students clearly have had their conscience caught, and like the King in “Hamlet” they are displeased. I don’t recall what happened to the actors in that “play within a play” but I’m willing to bet it was nothing good. Just like now. Ethics is hard and often carries great costs, including the loss of livelihood. Most people, if you threaten their livelihood will fold immediately. I would like to think I’d be different, but I’m not so sure. The professor has had his livelihood threatened, and for that he will abandon ethics to try to retain his position. And he’s unlikely too. Once the mob has you in their sights, no amount of groveling will appease them. To once again loosely quote Shakespeare, they want their pound of flesh. This clearly shows that the students who complain the loudest will be in charge unless and until more than just one professor is willing to stand up and say “No. There was nothing wrong with what I showed in class, the material is what it is and no amount of complaining can change that.” It will also take University’s in general to support them. It takes great courage to be the first, and almost as much to be the second, third and fourth person to do that. There is no guarantee of success and no guarantee of support. There is, however, a guarantee of persecution.

    It is a hard thing to do, and it brings me to the second quote. I hope Jack will forgive me, but this is from “The Simpsons”, specifically Grandpa Simpson. “I used to be “with it”, then they changed what “it” was.” This professor received a “MacArthur Genius Fellowship”. In 2001. 20 years ago. Attitudes and beliefs in the University and from the students have changed. This professor has not changed with them. He likely either did not realize they were occurring or hoped that they would pass him by. They did not. His graduate students are now upset about a production he had no participation in, he merely showed it to his class. And, to be honest, graduate students in my experience are often stunningly ignorant of the world around them. I should know. I used to be one.

    It’s no bad thing to not change with the times. Some of the ideas that come into society should be rejected, but Professor Sheng did not reject them. This professor still has, in my opinion, many great insights and his students still have much to learn from him. Including, possibly, how to properly face things in the past that “distress” them. But he has nothing to teach about courage. His behaviour also makes it more likely that the mob will be bolder next time, and the next victim will be quicker to hide, surrender or try to make sure nothing upsets their students.

    Ethical behaviour is hard. Behaviour like Professor Sheng’s makes it even harder.

  2. I can’t get over this quote:

    “I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

    If you think that a college course, let alone a graduate level one, is supposed to be a “safe space” then you are doing your education wrong in every possible way. That is utterly preposterous.

  3. If true, this is my insightful takeaway from this post:

    “Taboos aren’t rational, they are primitive, emotional, and based on irrational fear.”

    Taboos May be rational (incest, certain dietary practices, etc. have a rational basis). But they are probably primitive, without exception. And, they are probably adhered to in an irrational fashion.

    Framing these issues in that way may be productive.


      • But, there are lots of taboo things that are not wrong per se.

        Jewish dietary restrictions (and, by extension, most dietary restrictions—the Jews were just very explicit about it) had rational bases, even if they were not per se bad.


  4. No Professor, You Must NOT Apologize For Showing Students Lawrence Olivier Playing “Othello” [Corrected]


    Sheng screened the 1965 film version of Shakespeare’s “Othello” in his class as part of a lesson about how the tragedy was adapted for the opera. It stars the late Sir Laurence Olivier …

    For what it’s worth, that name is usually only “Lawrence” as a surname but “Laurence” otherwise. Guess what predisposed me to learn that.

    Now spot other typos in names hereabouts.

    Taboos aren’t rational, they are primitive, emotional, and based on irrational fear.

    That happens not to be the case, in what may appear to be a minor respect but is in fact rather important. A better description would be “… rest on irrational fear”. Some taboos have a sound basis, not simply on the stopped clock principle but on pragmatic learning expressed in a way that is more likely to be followed than merely “because”. It is fairly famous that Jewish dietary laws produce healthier lifestyles than others, at least in ancient Near Eastern conditions – but the teaching is given in the form of a taboo. I also notice JutGory’s similar remarks.

  5. You missed one other interesting aspect of this ‘tempest in a teapot’:

    On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng.

    A wet-behind-the-ears freshman, with ‘days’ of college experience under her belt, having the audacity to criticize how a course is being taught? Here are a couple of her other ‘insights’.

    According to Cook, the students were given no warning or contextualization prior to the viewing.

    On Sept. 16, Sheng sent out a formal apology to the department. He wrote that after doing more research into the issue, he realized the true extent to which racism impacts American culture, adding that he failed to recognize the racist connotation of blackface makeup…Cook told The Daily she felt the letter was shallow. By listing out all of his contributions to people of color, he failed to understand the gravity of his actions, Cook said.

  6. I think this situation is a little more vexed than you describe, although I agree that any graduate student who feels unsafe in the presence of a 56-year-old movie should probably look for a different line of work.
    Lots of thoughts, some of them contradictory, swirl around my head at the moment, many of them taking the form of “yeah, but…”
    Until I can articulate a coherent response, then, let me recommend this article that appeared in The Guardian six years ago:

    • Incidentally, I don’t like the movie. I don’t like Olivier on film most of the time—I find him calculated and stagey. One exception was his performance in “Spartacus”…another is his comic turn as an arch British officer in “The Devil’s Disciple.”

      • I’m not a huge Olivier fan, either (I saw him once on stage, too, and wasn’t impressed, although the play itself was very forgettable): I much preferred Gielgud, Richardson, and Redgrave. I don’t think I’ve seen more than clips of the Olivier Othello. It is interesting that even today three of the four most readily accessible film/tv versions feature white actors in the title role: Welles, Olivier, and Hopkins; the exception is Fishburne.
        Is the film of The Devil’s Disciple good? I’ve only seen the made-for-TV version with Mike Gwilym in the lead and Ian Richardson in the role Olivier played in the film.

        • Opinions differ on that odd Shaw adaptation. I like it, because I like Kirk and Burt together; it’s funny, and Olivier is especially funny in his drawing room comedy mode. It’s definitely worth seeing.

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