The Students and Young Internationalists for Social Equality (EJIES) at the University of Michigan denounce the racial smear campaign against renowned composer, conductor and pianist Bright Sheng. The assertion of a group of students and professors that he committed a “racist act” by showing a film version of Othello with Laurence Olivier is as misinformed as it is false. All serious and democratic students should refuse to be intimidated and stand up for Sheng.
On Friday, David Gier, the dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Drama and Dance (SMTD), announced that Sheng would stop teaching his undergraduate music composition course this semester, but that ‘he would remain a member of the teaching staff. The move came a month after Sheng screened for the class the 1965 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by longtime theater and television personality Stuart Burge, in which the great actor shakespearean Laurence Olivier plays Othello with black makeup.
Sheng, born in China and holder of the Distinguished University Leonard Bernstein Chair in Composition, is a world-renowned composer who has taught at the University of Michigan since 1995. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a MacArthur “genius” scholarship recipient. in 2001. The Foundation described him as “an innovative composer whose skilful orchestrations link East and West, lyrical and dissonant styles, and historical and contemporary themes to create compositions that resonate with each other. to audiences around the world ”.
The “crime” for which Sheng was forced to drop his course was only made possible by the racialist frenzy that gripped college campuses and the media. No honest or impartial person can find anything offensive about Olivier’s performance or the film as a whole.
Sheng was “denounced”, according to the Michigan Daily, by one of his freshmen, Olivia Cook, who noticed that Olivier was playing Othello with black makeup. “I was amazed,” said Olivia Cook. “At a school that preaches diversity and makes sure they understand the history of people of color in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) was showing something like this in a place that is supposed to be a safe space. . “
Cook, who obviously knows nothing about the play, its history or Olivier’s career and intentions in his 1965 performance, has so far been fully supported by the university in the baseless claim that Sheng’s showing of the film and the film itself were “racist.”
After the September 10 class and the manipulated uproar that followed, Sheng apologized to the students and canceled an Othello project planned for the class. According to the report, SMTD Dean Gier and several faculty members were quick to accept the claim that Sheng’s showing of the film was a “racist act.”
In a statement to Michigan Daily, composition teacher Evan Chambers – who replaces Sheng in the course – wrote: “Showing the film now, especially without any real context, without advice on content, and without emphasizing its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, whatever the professor’s intentions. ” Chambers presents absolutely no evidence to support such an outrageous claim. It seems the public should just take his word for it. Gier reported the “incident” to the college’s Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX office.
Sheng then issued a department-wide official apology on September 16. The letter expressed his opposition to racism and highlighted his numerous collaborations with artists of different races, genders and ethnicities to demonstrate that he “never considered himself discriminatory in any way”.
The official apology was then taken by a group of SMTD undergraduate and graduate students and several faculty members, who deemed them “inflammatory” because they “hinted” that Sheng was “responsible.” Of the “success” of the artists mentioned in his letter. The collective published this denunciation in a letter to the dean, requesting that Sheng be removed from his post for the remainder of the semester because he had created a “harmful environment.”
However, after the open letter was published last week, Sheng withdrew from teaching the course at Gier’s instigation.
This whole incident is filthy and shameful. Despite all the criticism that students need context and warnings about the play, there is hardly any discussion of the work itself or its film adaptation.
Othello, probably first performed in 1603, is one of the masterpieces of the English-language theatrical canon. The main character is a Moorish general in the Venetian army who secretly married Desdemona, the daughter of a prominent senator, Brabantio. The latter first accuses Othello of using magic and witchcraft to kidnap his daughter, until Desdemona appears and reveals his great love for her new husband. Iago, an ensign in the same army, hates Othello and successfully plots to make him jealous of his bride. The stoic general of the first half of the play gradually succumbs to Iago’s maneuvers in the second half, and tragedy culminates with the murder of Desdemona by Othello in a fit of blind and jealous rage. Othello is a deeply sympathetic and tragic character, defeated by the Machiavellian Iago.
The play has been performed countless times in four centuries around the world and adapted in many forms, including opera, most notably by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1887.
There are several film versions, including a legendary 1951 version directed by Orson Welles (starring Irish actor Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago), a 1981 version starring Anthony Hopkins (Othello) and Bob Hoskins (Iago) – directed by Jonathan Miller – and a 1995 adaptation (Oliver Parker), starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago.
The Burge-Olivier version from 1965 is a faithful and important interpretation. Although the Michigan Daily said the film was “controversial at the time,” it was actually highly regarded in many quarters. All of the film’s main actors were nominated for the Academy Awards, including Frank Finlay (Iago), Maggie Smith (Desdemona), Joyce Redman (Emilia) and Olivier.
Othello, “the Moor of Venice”, is generally considered to be of North African origin, from the region of present-day Morocco. It was very rare for Moors to appear in plays of the time (Shakespeare included the villainous Aaron the Moor in his Titus Andronicus), and many critics claim that Shakespeare consciously introduced race as one of the sources. tension in the play, especially between Desdemona’s father and Othello, as well as one of Iago’s motivations.
Soviet critic Aleksandr Smirnov argued that Shakespeare demonstrates his humanism in Othello, writing that “Desdemona loves Othello despite his race and color. In their tragic passion, the race problem as such does not exist, and it does not influence the attitude of the Doge. [le dirigeant vénitien] towards Othello. Shakespeare resolves the racial problem in a more radical way than in The Merchant of Venice. In the latter, a single monologue, which is not even an integral part of the play, deals with the problem while in Othello, the theme is dealt with in its entirety. Othello is a complete representative of the new era ”.
The denunciation of the interpretation of Olivier, which he had already given on the British scene, is particularly reactionary insofar as the actor tried to take on his account the timid and semi-racist approaches of the character of Othello who had prevailed for a century and a half.
By portraying Othello as black, as African, Olivier fended off various commentators shocked at the idea that the young white girl Desdemona could fall head over heels in love with a black man. As Elise Marks comments in an essay published in 2001, “Olivier is one of the first light-skinned actors to play Othello in black makeup since 1814. … In his autobiography, Olivier boasts that his black Othello was more authentic, more daring, more energetic than the “pale” Othello – he could almost have said “diluted” – of his immediate predecessors. Indeed, Olivier then explains in this memoir that the dominant “coffee-colored compromise” was born “from the feeling that the Moor could not be considered a truly noble Moor if he was too black and contrasted too much with the white nobles: a case shocking of sheer snobbery ”.
Laura Reitz-Wilson, in “Race and Othello on Film”, points out that “the Othello of 1965 is more revolutionary than the two [versions] previous ones, bringing the issue of race to the fore. Laurence Olivier plays a very dark Othello. Most of the racial terms of the play are repeated. Even the small references, those of Emilia and Desdemona, are not cut. Othello’s references to his race are also preserved and are interpreted, by Olivier, as Shakespeare intended. “
Any suggestion that there is a hint of racism in Olivier’s performance is preposterous. The actor strives to give his character the greatest possible dignity and humanity. the Michigan Daily writes that in a letter sent to Daily, Sheng explains “that the original intention was to show how opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera.” With the cross-cast being common in opera, he didn’t think Laurence Olivier’s performance was “meant to be the same as minstrel shows that degraded African Americans.”
Furthermore, whether fully intentional or not, Olivier also pays homage to the performances of the great African-American actor and singer and Communist Party supporter Paul Robeson, who has played Othello on numerous occasions. In a 1956 interview, Robeson described Othello as “a black man in a white society,” which partly explains the character’s desperate reactions to Iago’s plot, which exploits his isolation and vulnerability.
In his interview, Robeson approvingly refers to the writings of British critic AC Bradley, who firmly maintains that Shakespeare “imagined Othello as a black man” and lashes out at “the horror of most American critics.” . to the idea of a black Othello ”.
The EJIES unequivocally condemns the campaign against Sheng, which has absolutely nothing to do with leftist or progressive politics. Students who complain about the “safe spaces” and “harmful environment” created by Othello’s performance should be a bit more mature and learn something. This is what a university education is supposed to do.
The Students and Young Internationalists for Social Equality call on all concerned students and teachers to speak out against this situation. The campaign of intimidation against any criticism of the deleterious framework of racialist and identity politics must be rejected and fought.
(Article published in English on October 11, 2021)
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Oppose right-wing racialist attack on composer Bright Sheng at the University of Michigan