Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



A 21st century, hip-hop, basketball version of the Othello story. I love Shakespeare, and I am always interested in adaptations of his works, no matter how far-fetched. One of my favorite versions of King Lear was Ran, by Akira Kurosawa, which obviously didn’t used the original text. I also like Romeo + Juliet, by Baz Luhrman, which did, but set the play in an entirely different, fantastic milieu, and used guns instead of swords. O is one of those that uses only the story, not Shakespeare’s words. Some people have a big problem with that. They find it ridiculous. I don’t. The story has been stolen and re-worked so many times, in so many ways. (Shakespeare himself stole it, for that matter, as he stole most of his story ideas.) Both Verdi and Rossini wrote operas called Otello, which didn’t use Shakespearean dialogue, not even translated into Italian. I find a modern-day interpretation using modern-day language less ridiculous than the 1922 silent movie version—which is included on the special edition DVD. I mean, a silent Shakespeare? What that boils down to is a lot of overdressed guys gesticulating wildly at each other, and the odd title card with a few words from the Bard to keep the plot moving along. But most of the plays have silent versions, and people apparently enjoyed them who wouldn’t have sat through all five acts, nor understood much of Shakespeare’s words.

Don’t get me wrong, I favor the original text, I love the poetry, the iambic pentameter. But that doesn’t make me scorn attempts to bring the story to a larger audience. Al Pacino made a whole, delightful little film called Looking For Richard, which was about how to think about and enjoy Richard III. This film attempts to interest the high school generation in the story. I don’t know how that worked, but I know it worked for me.

See, the thing is, though I am usually deeply moved by Shakespeare’s words, I am moved on a mostly intellectual level. I am moved by the language, and by the acting. I can’t recall ever tearing up at any Shakespearean scene. Not the death of Cordelia, nor the assassination of Caesar, nor the suicide of Ophelia. Nor the deaths of Romeo and Juliet in any version I’ve ever seen, stage or screen. Moved, but not to tears. However, I sob like a child when Tony is killed in West Side Story. I can’t help it. I know these people, and I know the way they speak; I don’t know rich families in Verona, and I don’t know Elizabethan English. I have to listen hard, and think about the lines.

I thought this worked surprisingly well. All the actors are good. Othello becomes Odin, known as O and played by Mekhi Phifer, the only black kid in a lily-white private academy, recruited for his basketball skills. Desdemona becomes Desi, played by Julia Stiles, who was 20 but can easily look 16. And Iago is Hugo, son of the basketball coach, Duke (Martin Sheen), who bitterly resents O for picking Michael Cassio (Cassio, obviously) as his main man on the court, and his father for favoring O. Hugo’s motivations are clear, and his plots diabolic. For the first time, I could really see Othello/O falling for Iago/Hugo’s lies; he tells them so persuasively. Phifer had to be good not only as an actor, but as a B-ball player, there could be no faking his moves or his slam dunks. And Martin Sheen plays an intense basketball coach very well. It’s directed by Tim Blake Nelson, that goofy-looking guy who’s probably better known as an actor than as a director. All in all, I recommend this one.