Tim Blake Nelson's unconventional adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello is a film about deceit and pride that is by no means the greatest film to come out in 2001. What O is, however, is a fully realized film that sticks to its guns and delivers a fresh and focused adaptation that neither relies solely on its original plot nor strays so far away that it becomes ridiculous. From the Outkast heavy soundtrack to the minimalist acting, O is what a director should aspire to make. O is sound in its execution and makes the viewing enjoyable, despite being a rather abrasive film. Perhaps the greatest factor of this film is that it takes an issue like race, which was important in Shakespeare's play and extends it to become the most relevant factor of the film, which expertly reflects its contemporary conditions, from the awkward sense of entitlement for white teenagers, to the delusional drive of a black basketball player being exploited for his athletic prowess. In short, O is one of the freshest and most masterfully executed Shakespeare adaptations to date and is criminally under-appreciated for this sole reason.
The plot for those familiar with Othello, should be rather obvious, but given its twenty first century spin, I will explain the story anyways. The film's title character, as in its original, is a respected black male named Odin (Mekhi Phifer), whose basketball abilities have gained him the respect of his peers and the teams coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen). However, the film's central character is not Odin, but Duke's son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) who despises Odin for not only his athletic abilities, but the attention he receives from his father. As a result, of his jealously, Hugo engages in an elaborate and furious plan to ruin Odin's life which includes causing him to become suspicious of his white girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles). Hugo tricks Odin into believing that Desi is engaging in infidelity with another basketball player named Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan). Furthermore, in order to assure Michael's distance from the situation, Hugo causes a fellow student Roger Rodriguez (Elden Henson) to disdain Michael for his bullying behavior and his seemingly close relations with Desi. In a spiral of deceit and confusion, Hugo gets Odin to kill Desi, while he attempts to get Roger to kill Michael. When this portion of the plan fails, Hugo takes the act of killing Michael into his own hands, along with the killing of Roger who he deems a threat at this point. However, despite his attempts to execute the plan, he is arrested and Odin ultimately kills himself realizing the errors of his recent murder and that his entire course of actions were the result of the jealous white people around him, a decisive end to a racially fueled film.
Aside from expert adaptation, O is an astute film in terms of racial commentary, particularly the exploitation of non-white individuals for the enjoyment of white individuals. O does this both on a very blatant level and on a large scale throughout the entire narrative. The exoticization of Odin as an athlete is constant in the film, whether it be the entire school gazing at him longingly as he plays basketball, or the continual reference of Odin as a prospect by college recruiters, which demean him as nothing more than an object for the exploitation of their own advancement. This is rather necessary to the film plot, but the act of exploiting black athletes has become quite the point of contention in recent years as the NCAA continues to make large amounts of money off of their athletes which are predominantly black. Secondly, the film focuses on exploitation of a black guy for the petty concerns of a white kid. Hugo is clearly discontent with his life, as is evidenced by his continual drug use and, instead of simply facing up to his faults and confronting his father he attempts to increase his athletic skills through steroid use and by attempting to degrade Odin. While not a perfect comparison it is likely that Nelson's concern in making this film was to show that these actions of jealously on the part of white persons toward those of color still occurred and while O is certainly a hyper-reality of such actions, the truth is that in America in the 21st century white people have blamed and exploited blacks for a lot larger things then getting praise as athletes. O is not the greatest commentary on race in the United States, but it certainly does its share to continue the debate.
I cannot full out recommend purchasing this film as it will not be for everyone, but I would suggest renting it and watching it, because as noted earlier it is one of the best and most unconventional Shakespeare adaptations I have ever seen.