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.