#447: Oliver Parker’s Othello
Not the first film adaptation of Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy to cast a black lead, but an important one
Initial release: 1995
Directed by: Oliver Parker
The fundamental oddity of Othello as originally envisioned by Shakespeare is that though the title role wasn’t technically intended for a man of sub-Saharan African descent, at least in the minds of modern audiences and students it’s indelibly associated with the idea. Thus gives rise to a context of the play that the Bard may not have considered at the time, despite the rise of the Transatlantic slave trade around that time. But the play’s treatment of its title character, a Moorish general who leads Venice to victory against the Ottoman Empire only to be goaded into murdering his wife by his envious ensign, makes no bones about the fact that whatever his ancestry may be, the color of his skin is in sharp contrast to his Euro-ethnic brethren.
Of course, it’s a sad irony that a play so deeply wound up in themes of race is itself frequently a victim of racism, as capable actors of color were historically simply excluded from consideration for the lead role, which results in white actors being cast and often appearing in blackface. As recently as 1965 we had examples like Laurence Olivier’s take on the character, which was little more than a glorified minstrel show.
But that leads me to a different Laurence — namely, Fishburne, a man of incredible range and talent, and easily one of my favorite actors of all time. His appearance in Oliver Parker’s 1995 adaptation of Othello across Kenneth Branagh’s conniving, poisonous Iago makes for a pair of stunning performances, with Branagh putting a level of petty evil into his character not replicated until his role as Reinhard Heydrich in 2002’s Conspiracy. While it’s not the first film adaptation to feature a black man in the lead role, it’s certainly the first really big one, produced by a major studio (Columbia Pictures.)
Released in the context of the OJ Simpson murder trial, the media pretty much had a field day with the obvious comparisons; that being said, I don’t think I’m really equipped to go into depth about the issues of race in Othello, either screen or stage, so I’ll leave it to someone else to talk about.
Instead, I’ll just talk about how this is a fantastically directed film, a real good example of what I’m looking for in Shakespearean cinema: something that takes advantage of what the medium of film offers (and how: Iago directly addresses the camera in increasingly creepy close-ups, at one point causing a transition by grabbing the camera to cover the lens) and lets the actors actually act around a room, rather than confine them to a stage.
Parker also isn’t afraid to touch on the raw sexuality in the play; we’re treated to multiple love scenes, both real and imagined, and one key scene occurs beneath a cart as two extras go at it above. And yet all the while, the dialogue, which hews as close to the original script as possible (minus some drastic cuts,) reminds us that this is indeed an adaptation of Shakespeare.
Despite the film’s box office failure, I think this film ultimately is more successful than some other takes, simply by virtue of being pragmatic about what it is, not what it’s trying to be.
There was some consternation about how the film was a dumbing-down of the original play, but I think such arguments miss the broader issue of how you translate a three-hour stage drama into a cinematic experience; while longer films have their place (despite my misgivings on the recent over-reliance of length as a substitute for pacing) the important thing is that this is a film, and like all film adaptations, it doesn’t have to, nor should it, be beholden to the structure of its source material.
Sometimes I feel that filmmakers trying to closely emulate Shakespeare are insecure in the value of their own medium; after all, film had long been largely ignored as an art form by academics until, arguably, The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1957 rumination on death, morality and faith. (The video game industry is going through a similar situation now, not helped by the fact that some of its audience do not want art.) With that kind of history, and with the abundance of cheap-thrill films, it’s easy to see why even being one of the biggest names in Hollywood doesn’t make you immune to being insecure about what’s “really” cinema and what’s not.
And whatever you may think of Othello as a play, it sure makes for a damn good movie.