Doves flutter in a bell tower as an angelic choir sings. We hear someone say, “I know you’re not supposed to be jealous of anything, but to soar and take flight — that’s living.” As he speaks of his envy of hawks, the music shifts to hip-hop, setting the state for an imaginative and arresting retelling of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” set in a contemporary southern prep school.
Instead of Othello, a Moorish conquering warrior married to Desdemona, a white noblewoman, we see Odin (Mekhi Phifer) a talented black athlete, the only black student in the school, in love with Desi (Julia Stiles), the headmaster’s daughter. Instead of Iago, the trusted friend who is consumed with jealousy, we see Hugo (Josh Harnett), the coach’s son.
“Othello” works exceptionally well in a high school setting because so much of the plot fits in with the overheated emotions and impetuousness of adolescence. The plot turns on rumors, misunderstandings, trusting the wrong people, and jumping to conclusions, all of which will seem familiar to teenagers. They will also be very familiar with the racial issues, and their impact on O’s hypersensitivity to believing that Desi is faithful to him. Hugo’s use of steroids deepens the credibility of his fury at Odin’s success.
First-time director Tim Blake Nelson (who was last seen singing “In the Jailhouse Now” in “O Brother Where Art Thou”) shows a strong command of the storyline and imaginative use of visuals that underscore the movie’s themes. He gets very strong performances from the actors, especially Harnett and Phifer and Martin Sheen as the coach.
Parents should know that the movie’s release was delayed because of its violence. As in the original play, characters are brutally murdered and there is a suicide. Teen characters smoke, drink, and use drugs. The language is extremely harsh, including the n-word and a homophobic epithet and very harsh rap lyrics on the soundtrack. A consensual sexual encounter turns into a rape, and there are other sexual references and situations. A girl is referred to as a slut.
Families who see this movie should talk about how easy it can be to shake someone’s trust, and how difficult it is to determine who we should believe. They should talk about Odin’s conflicts — the reason he doubts Desi so quickly is more a reflection of his doubts about himself than his faith in her. Would he be so quick to believe that she was unfaithful to him if Mike was black? Would Hugo be so angry at Odin if Odin was white? What do you think about O’s use of the word “nigger” and his reaction when he is told that Mike and Desi call him that behind his back?
Odin also shows his conflicts about women when he asks Desi, “If you were a virgin like you said you were how come you acting all freaky?” This is typical of immature people who cannot reconcile mature sexuality as a reflection of true intimacy. Families should discuss the scene in which Hugo is invited to have dinner with his father. Why does the camera show only Hugo? Why is Hugo so hurt by what his father says? What does Hugo want his father to see that he doesn’t?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy one of the filmed versions of Othello, especially the ones starring Laurence Olivier and Laurence Fishburne. They may also want to read or see Native Son, another tragic story about a young black man.