Laurence Olivier ‘Othello’ Controversy Undermines Cultural History

Laurence Olivier and Frank Finlay (at left) in Othello. (Shakespeare Network/YouTube)

Universities and the New York Times exploit race to undermine cultural history.

Don’t erase Laurence Olivier’s Othello, his last great film performance. It had caused a sensation on stage at The National Theatre in London, and Olivier wisely put that interpretation on film in 1965. But now posterity has repaid Olivier — one of the few true theatrical legends of the 20th century — with the latest politically correct race hoax.

University of Michigan professor Bright Sheng denigrated Olivier’s Othello through his bizarre choice to present it as the topic of a music-theory class. From there, the New York Times inflated the incident for one of its customary lessons in 1619 Project–style revisionism (after Sheng had repented for his sin by stepping down from teaching his course).

In a 3,000-word Times article on October 15, “culture reporter” Jennifer Schuessler used Sheng’s dubious class curriculum to undermine Shakespeare, Olivier — and, by implication, Western culture’s best efforts to address race and human experience. The Times misrepresented Olivier’s Othello by connecting it to “minstrelsy.” Labeling it “controversial” is progressive code for offensive and unacceptable.

Sheng signed a self-incriminating letter that described his actions as “disappointing and harmful to individual students in many different ways.” That cowardly approach to film culture makes Sheng’s professorial actions suspect; they were quite probably an activist stunt (after all, he is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant).

This revision of Othello is based in dishonesty: Schuessler quoted Bosley Crowther’s 1965 review dismissing Olivier’s performance as “reminiscent of Amos ’n’ Andy,” but she failed to balance that opinion with the era’s more insightful acclaim. Pauline Kael’s commendation remains definitive:

Olivier’s Negro Othello — deep voice with a trace of foreign music in it; happy, thick, self-satisfied laugh, rolling buttocks; grand and barbaric and, yes, a little lewd . . . Olivier is the most physical Othello imaginable. As a lord, this Othello is a little vulgar — too ingratiating, a boaster, an arrogant man. Reduced to barbarism, he shows us a maimed African prince inside the warrior-hero. Iago’s irrationality has stripped him bare to a different kind of beauty. We’re sorry to see it, and we are not sorry, either. To our eyes, the African prince is more beautiful in his isolation than the fancy courtier in his reflected white glory. . . . What Negro actor at this stage in the world’s history could dare bring to the role the effrontery Olivier does?

The contrast between Crowther and Kael is instructive, yet the Times prefers its own ideological gatekeeping, by which it reduces everything to racial offense. It endorses and perpetuates the University of Michigan’s “anti-racist” policies, mirroring the diktats that are now routine throughout academia, where culturally ignorant students are “triggered.” Yet other media corroborate woke orthodoxy when reports repeat the same condemnatory phrases (“blackface”) disseminated by the Times. Cultural slander such as this occurs only when deceit and falsehood become the cultural record.

In what seems like a repeat of Bowling Green State University’s 2019 Lillian Gish scandal, we are faced with further despotic reactions from a censorious student body whose sense of entitlement is encouraged by a scared and equally ignorant faculty. It’s oppression by the educated class. (Instructor Ayanna Thompson told the Times, “Gen Z is unbelievably right on,” bowing before the cancel-culture mob.)

Gen Z’s miseducation begins with Sheng’s questionable tutelage — his inept pedagogy teaches how to be alarmed and offended instead of bringing facts of art history and providing context for cultural understanding. The Times confused Sheng’s apology, hiding it behind his claim of having escaped from Communist China’s tyranny. And Schuessler never explained why a music professor teaching opera overlooked the critically acclaimed 1986 Franco Zeffirelli film of Verdi’s Othello, starring Placido Domingo.

Sheng’s choice of the Olivier film seems like a stunt designed to create “controversy,” or maybe just help along the Times’ 1619 Project agenda favored by progressive schools and colleges.

Neither Sheng nor the Times appreciates the remarkable timeliness of Olivier’s Othello — released the same year that the Watts riots torched much of Los Angeles. Olivier acknowledged previous civil-rights outrages, reminding high and low culture of the aesthetic and historical facts of blackness. Don’t let this work of courageous genius be lost to nonsense about “minstrelsy” and “equity.” Students should learn about Ira Aldridge, the 19th century’s celebrated black stage actor, who played both Othello and King Lear — the latter surely not a performance to be described as “white face” any more than Oliver’s make-up deserves the calumny “black face.” The Times used that loaded term with prejudice and deliberate obtuseness — meanwhile ignoring Olivier’s dark-skinned The Mahdi in Khartoum (praised by no less than Martin Scorsese). It’s as clueless as judging as sexist Mark Rylance’s recent performance as Olivia in Twelfth Night.

When I first saw Olivier’s Othello at New York’s old Thalia repertory cinema, I was awestruck. It felt like one of the most impressive and revelatory characterizations ever seen on film. Surely the Times is wrong to say it was “shocking” when the Motion Picture Academy rewarded the film with four major nominations — to Olivier, Frank Finlay, Maggie Smith, and Joyce Redman, who all conveyed the powerful story of jealousy, ambition, reputation, love, and, yes, race as understood throughout world history.

Sheng’s apology/confession claimed, “The depth of racism was, and still is, a dangerous part of American culture.” That thoughtless bromide denies how Shakespeare and Olivier’s achievements test our deepest selves. Instituting Iago’s scared, duplicitous ignorance as the cultural standard seems to be the Times’ goal.


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Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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