Scenes From the Classroom Struggle


Whether out of fear, regret, or a newfound sense of propriety, Hollywood scrambled to edit itself after the deaths at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and no film shredded more nerves than O. Two years, two distributors, and eight release dates later, Tim Blake Nelson’s high school adaptation of Othello finally arrives on August 31, when Lions Gate—who purchased the film from Dimension, a wing of Miramax—opens the film in 1500 theaters. (Lions Gate is no stranger to taking in Miramax’s problem children, notably Kevin Smith’s Catholic Church-baiting Dogma.)

Written by Brad Kaaya, the film reimagines Othello as a basketball star named Odin, played by Mekhi Phifer, in an otherwise all-white prep school in Charleston, South Carolina. The passage of time has rendered it a subtly different film: The hip-hop on the soundtrack is no longer current, of course, and cast members Josh Hartnett (as Iago component Hugo) and Julia Stiles (as Desi) have become magazine-cover stars in the interim. And the film’s reputation now unavoidably precedes it, though it might seem odd that a well-intentioned, even earnest Shakespeare gloss, with a body count (four dead, one wounded) that Jerry Bruckheimer would sneer at, could have run into so much trouble.

Most of the studios’ post-Columbine tweaking, after all, was comparatively minor. For its teen horror flick Idle Hands, released just 10 days after Columbine, Columbia Pictures canceled all advertising in the Denver area, and the United Artists theater chain pulled the film from its Colorado venues. Dimension’s Killing Mrs. Tingle, in which students hold their nasty teacher hostage, was retitled Teaching Mrs. Tingle and given a rejiggered end-ing. Sugar & Spice & Semiautomatics, a black comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders, was nicened into Sugar & Spice; the California adolescent spin on Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment in High School, was relocated as Crime and Punishment in Suburbia. Disney decided that guns would no longer be featured in any of their movie ads. And a handful of films with violent content were simply pushed back until the air cleared: Fight Club, Sleepy Hollow, and Scream 3. Fight Club and Sleepy Hollow arrived later in 1999, while Scream 3—which, like O and Teaching Mrs. Tingle, was a product of Dimension—landed in theaters in February 2000. O, once part of this delayed batch, fell further and further behind.

Director Nelson, who was editing O when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire in Littleton, Colorado, suggests that the film’s very distinction from most blood-sugar-sex-magic teen reelers might have actually hurt it. “I think it’s always going to be surprising in a serious drama when a young boy takes out a gun and shoots somebody and it’s not filmed in a stylized way, and it doesn’t have a lot of goofy music under it to alienate you from the gravity of what just happened.

“My reaction to Columbine was that it quite tragically confirmed the veracity of the film we were making,” says Nelson, who is also a playwright and actor (perhaps best known for his role in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?). “The movie meticulously avoided fetishizing the violence in the way most teen films do. I never felt worried that the film would be misconstrued as destructive or a part of the problem. I thought it was a very careful and sensitive reflection of these events.”

“There’s nothing titillating or irresponsible about the movie. It’s the concept and the reality that’s so shocking.” Those aren’t Tim Blake Nelson’s words about O, but Eamonn Bowles speaking in 1995 about Kids, Larry Clark’s verité drama about sex-crazed, drug-addled teenagers wandering New York City in a nihilist stupor. In 1995, Bowles (until recently head of the late, lamented Shooting Gallery Film Series) became the chief operating officer of Excalibur Films, Kids‘ distributor, an ad-hoc entity set up by Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein in order to circumvent parent company Disney’s policy against releasing NC-17 films. (Under Excalibur, Kids went out unrated.)

The differences between the two films’ fates double as an index for how Miramax’s priorities have shifted over time; several published reports, notably The New York Observer‘s on November 13 of last year, have suggested that Harvey Weinstein did not want his high-profile efforts on behalf of Al Gore and Hollywood Joe Lieberman to be tripped up by association with a film sporting teen sex and violence. Whatever one might think of Kids (NAMBLA-worthy scopophilia? Finger-wagging voyeurism? “A wake-up call to the world,” per Janet Maslin?), the brothers Weinstein were still bending over backwards to get a graphic Amerindie version of outsider art into theaters. Six years later, they’re selling off a fairly conventional teen melodrama to the first available bidder. Perhaps it goes without saying that Clark’s current drooling paean to naked, amoral jailbait, Bully, is distributed by Lions Gate.

O and Bully, as well as Lot 47’s L.I.E. (opening September 7), all climax with murderous violence perpetrated by teenagers, and likewise feature a combative, crypto-erotic male friendship at their centers. Jealousy and unspecified longing are consistent motivations for acting out, or even for revenge. The parents are either authority figures (in O, Hugo’s dad is the basketball coach and Desi’s is the dean), stupid automatons (the type is universal through Clark’s films; in L.I.E., the protagonist’s dad makes up for bruising his boy’s face by giving him a chemistry set: “Go blow up the school”), or utterly absent.

In many respects, the current crop remains faithful to the template provided by the mother of all avenging-teen movies, Massacre at Central High (1976), Rene Daalder’s deliriously abstract boobs-and-explosions B movie, in which not a single adult is spotted until the last reel. The plot is straightforward, and in its gallows-humor way, prophetic. Boy moves to new school, renews preexisting close bond with one of the popular guys. New boy is nonetheless victimized by bullies; kills bullies on behalf of himself and the other unpopular kids. The unpopular kids, no longer oppressed, begin bullying each other; new boy kills them off too. The insanity halts only when a high school bombing is narrowly averted (a denouement homaged in 1989’s Heathers).

Massacre‘s point and essence was giddy, guilt-free slash-and-burn, but for realist dramas, the fine line between honest reflection and wanton exploitation is always a sticking point. The boundary is further blurred when the idea of provocation is introduced. Certainly O never would have sat on a shelf for so long if Miramax executives hadn’t feared that some heartland kid would mimic Hugo’s labyrinthine plot against Odin. Telling it like it is can always turn into telling it like it will be.

There’s a discomfitingly anticipatory scene in O: a lingering close-up on hapless sad-sack Roger (the film’s Roderigo analogue, played by Elden Henson), who sits blinking back tears at a pep rally while a pair of cool-kid tyrants sitting behind him lean in, swatting his ears and hissing “faggot,” as sweet, pitying Desi protests ineffectually in the background. “Cruelty is a function of high school,” Nelson says of this scene. “Either in response to that cruelty or a function of that cruelty, teenagers—who can now get hold of guns more easily than ever—are killing each other.”

A demonstrated concern for verisimilitude is a built-in defense against any controversy O might court once audiences can see it. This one-size-fits-all rebuttal—but it really happened—can guard, however speciously, any movie drawn from true events, ranging from Jonathan Kaplan’s superb, similarly beleaguered Over the Edge (see sidebar) to Clark’s Bully, which is based on a 1993 murder of a 20-year-old by several of his peers in the Florida Everglades.

Where O‘s focus on realism perhaps comes into question is in placing a black character at the center of a lily-white phenomenon. (For what it’s worth, Nelson is white and screenwriter Kaaya is black.) Hugo and Roger are undoubtedly the film’s Harris-Klebold surrogates, but Odin’s rapid mutation—from sweet-natured big man on campus to fire-breathing rapist—brushes against stereotypes of black male sexual potency, rage, and aggression. Granted, this is always a problem in adapting Othello, but what is Othello doing in a Jonesboro or Pearl scenario anyway?

“Is it tragic and predestined because he’s black and all black characters, if they’re assimilated into a white society, end up doing violence—is that the point? Probably not,” says Nelson. “Is it about how a society will refuse to allow an infiltration of an ‘other,’ and it will conspire to turn that figure into what it most fears? That’s closer to what Shakespeare was getting at.” As Nelson has it, Odin is the ultimate outsider in the high school inferno.

Earlier this year, after Miramax had sold the film’s license to Lions Gate, O‘s producers filed suit against Miramax, arguing that the company had broken its distribution agreement by sitting on the film for so long. The suit was settled in June; Nelson can’t discuss details because of a confidentiality agreement, but he stresses that “Miramax never interfered with me creatively.”

Though O addresses a teenage phenomenon, Nelson explains, “I didn’t want to pander to teenagers. Perhaps that’s caused some trouble for O, because it’s hard to get people in their twenties and thirties to come see a movie that’s set in high school—they think, Oh, it’s just another teen movie. It’s also rated R, so it’s cutting away everyone under 17 as well. Well, who’s gonna go see the movie? I dunno,” Nelson says with a laugh. “And I guess I don’t care. Once I saw the check print of the movie in March of last year, I let it go. And it really didn’t make much difference to me if it ended up on one screen or a thousand.”

Research assistance: Jacob Blecher and Sasha Statman-Weil