Film Project: "Othello" Modernized

Shakespeare is a universal playwright. He deals with common, human themes in all of his tragedies and comedies, whether the setting is Italy, Scotland, a forest in Athens, or a fictional kingdom. But while "The Taming of the Shrew," "Macbeth," "A Midsummer's Night's Dream," "Twelfth Night," and "The Merchant of Venice," deal with recognizably human characters struggling with love, ambition, and the consequences of their own and other person's mistakes, only one drama of Shakespeare has become more, rather than less relevant in terms of the issues it addresses. And that is the tragedy of "Othello."

The Elizabethans were not a multiracial, multiethnic society like America today, yet the plot of "Othello" is contingent upon racial conflict, from its very beginning when Desdemona's father cannot believe that his White daughter would choose a Black man as her husband, and the jealous Iago attempts to stoke Desdemona's father's rage with the crude phrase, that a "Black ram is tupping" Brabatino's "white ewe" of a daughter. Although there is much speculation as to the reasons for Iago's jealousy, when one considers the racial conflicts that plague modern society, this serves to illuminate an essential truth of the play. Jealousy is irrational, and Iago's actions are irrational because jealousy is a base emotion, like the hatred for another human being because of his or her skin color or national origin. There is no real 'reason' for jealousy or racism, it is a psychological manifestation of the twisted personal needs and perspective of the jealous or racist individual. Othello's paranoia about his wife's chastity, however, becomes 'rational' when understood in light of the prejudice he has suffered all of his life. Shakespeare's "Othello," according to his own personal testimony, was sold into slavery. Iago's machinations make Othello afraid that Desdemona, a supposedly "subtle Venetian" has fallen prey to her father's prejudices. Othello, feeling afraid of his own place in society, after its racism has been revealed when he elopes with Desdemona, thus becomes an easy prey for Iago's persuasive power, despite his evident honor and intelligence.

To make the relevance of the racism within the play apparent, it should be transposed in cinematic form to modern society. Othello, in the original play, is a great war hero. This is what makes Brabatino's rejection of Othello as a son-in-law so shocking. Although Othello has given his life to service, he is still not fully an accepted part of Venetian society. This parallels the fate of many young African-American athletes at largely white college campuses. The athletes are used for their athletic prowess, to increase the school's reputation and name recognition, but are not treated as socially equal by the majority of the student populace, the faculty, or the school administration.

This new "Othello" would depict the fate of a young, Black basketball star, a senior at a midwestern university famous for the success of its basketball team. This athlete, John Othello (nicknamed "the O-man" throughout the film by his fellow players) was born an inner city Chicago orphan and never had a real home. He was passed through a series of foster homes, but he always shone on the basketball court in whatever high school he happened to be attending at the time. Eventually, a midwestern university, located in the cornfields of a nameless heartland state gave him a scholarship. The athlete won glory for the school, and also was able to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, academically. However, the fact that the Black athlete got a full scholarship draws the ire of Ian (the Iago figure), a fellow member of the team. Ian is White, but blue-collar in terms of his class in American society, and he is a good, although not a great athlete. He believes that affirmative action alone is the reason for John's success. When John, now a senior, elopes with the daughter of the school president (Desiree, or Des, for short), pandemonium breaks loose, although John Othello's strong academic record initially persuades some of the school administration of John's essential goodness. The president now hates John, but realizes he cannot expel him without alienating most of his staff, the Board of Directors, and the many fans and alumni who come to see John play.

Then, Ian convinces John that Des has been unfaithful to him with another member of the team, a handsome White point guard, named 'Mike.' John grows increasingly paranoid, and feels pressured at school, on the court, and amongst his friends. Eventually, he accuses Des of being unfaithful, and accidentally strangles her with a long college scarf that she wears around her neck. The college scarf symbolizes the new life that John hoped to have, away from his inner city roots that has been cruelly turned against him by Ian. John is destroyed by his fears that he is being mocked by his new wife and his fellow teammates, because he comes from a different racial and class background than most of the other students.

Certain parts of the film could be easily transposed to a college campus. For example, the drinking scene between Iago and Cassio could take place instead at a fraternity. Ian could have a girlfriend, "Emily" (Emilia) who steals the college sweatshirt John gave to her as a gift. Rodrigo could become "Roger" a nerdy student Ian takes into his power, because Roger has been in love with Des from afar, for many years.

The film could also make very effective use of modern cinematic techniques. For example, early on, the film could to show flashbacks of the poverty of John's existence, and how he had done so much for the school over the course of his career while Des explains that John's unique stories had wooed her, while he visited her father's home. The personal flashbacks could also occur when John was talking to the assembled administrators about how he wooed Des, and won glory for the university throughout his basketball career. Shots of the students playing basketball would be one way to make some of Shakespeare's more talky passages come to life. Finally, the exchanges between John Othello and Ian could take place during basketball practice, which would make the 'cat and mouse' approach of Ian's baiting of Othello's jealousy kinesthetic, rather than purely verbal. Who was 'winning' and 'losing' the argument could be paralleled in who was winning or losing on the court. Othello's epilepsy in the play could be a bad asthma attack, as Othello has asthma from the poor conditions in which he lived as a child, although he keeps it under control with an inhaler.

Modernizing "Othello" would not simply bring to light the deep racism within modern society. It would also illuminate a great deal about Shakespeare's play, like the two main characters' strange behaviors. It is easier to understand why Othello trusts Iago when one understands that Othello is not simply a Black man speaking in iambic pentameter in a funny costume like other Shakespearean characters, but a fish out of water in a White, Italian world who has struggled to prove himself as a general and has given much to a society that continues to treat him like an alien. He does not trust his White wife Desdemona, because Venetian society refuses to trust him. The lower class Iago hates Cassio, because Cassio is wealthy, which Iago attributes to the reason that he has not been promoted, and Iago particularly hates the fact that a man whom he believes should be beneath him, namely "Othello" should have power over his promotion.

Othello" would be portrayed by a young Sidney Potier -- a composed, classy young man who seems to have his White society's mores down pat, even though he does not. A young Emilio Estevez -- jocky, angry, and blue collar would play Ian/Iago. Des would be shy, pale, poised and yet defiant -- Audrey Hepburn, and Emilia a sassy Molly Ringwald.

Original Scene: Act 1, Scene 3

OTHELLO

Her father loved me; oft invited me;

Still question'd me the story of my life,

From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,

That I have passed.

I ran it through, even from my boyish days,

To the very moment that he bade me tell it;

Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,

Of moving accidents by flood and field

Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach,

Of being taken by the insolent foe

And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence

And portance in my travels' history:

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven

It was my hint to speak, -- such was the process;

And of the Cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthropophagi and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear

Would Desdemona seriously incline:

But still the house-affairs would draw her thence:

Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,

She'ld come again, and with a greedy ear

Devour up my…