Begging for trouble every which way, O transposes Shakespeare’s Othello to a coed prep school in South Carolina. The Moor of Venice, the war hero who subdued the Turkish invaders, is now Odin, nicknamed “O” (Mekhi Phifer), the school’s star basketball player and the only African American on campus. The villainous Iago is rendered as Odin’s teammate Hugo (Josh Hartnett). Envious of Odin’s talent and popularity, Hugo devises an elaborate plot to destroy him by making him doubt the love of his girlfriend, Desi (Julia Stiles).
While dispensing with Shakespeare’s language, director Tim Blake Nelson and screenwriter Brad Kaaya have scrupulously followed the dramatic outline and the details of the play. The result is a film that is so well plotted it draws the viewer into the action even though, on the level of character, almost nothing makes sense. It’s simply impossible to accept that these are high school kids. That’s particularly true of Hugo: His skill at reading the psychology of his pawns and his ability to delay his own gratification for what seems like an entire semester while he gulls Odin bespeak a level of experience and self-control beyond that of any adolescent. This basic inconsistency in the script is exacerbated by the fact that the actors display a composure and an attention span that are out of keeping with teenage behavior. And although I’m sure this is not what Nelson and Kaaya had in mind, the film so badly blurs the distinction between adolescents and grown-ups that it could be used to make the case for treating minors as adults within the criminal justice system.
From the standpoint of race, the film is similarly at cross purposes. Appropriating Othello‘s masterful deployment of dramatic irony, O positions Hugo, the guy we’re supposed to hate, as our confidant, making us privy to the mechanism of the trap he’s setting for the hero. We watch in horror, but from a place of superiority, as the good guy is played for a fool with tragic consequences. In Othello, the dazzlingly manipulative Iago runs the show, but the Moor gets the better of him in the poetry department, and it’s the poetry that gives us access to his subjectivity and lets us understand him as a tragic figure. In the film, Odin has no way to articulate his thoughts and feelings except through physical violence and self-destructive behavior. At best, he seems pitiable; at worst, dumb and brutal—in other words, closer to a black stereotype than the filmmakers could possibly want him to be.
In the wake of Columbine, O was shelved for two years by Miramax and then sold off to the more intrepid Lions Gate. Since the violence in the film has everything to do with sexual jealousy and racial division—hardly the characteristics of the past decade of high school killings, although Columbine had racist overtones—it’s likely that Miramax, a company skilled in the art of spinning a film into what it’s not, was less worried about what’s actually on the screen than about how it could be construed (not to mention that the inevitable R rating would be a box office disadvantage).
But there’s something else at work. The association with Columbine masks what is genuinely moving and transgressive about O: the interracial romance between Odin and Desi. That’s the place where the film ever so briefly drops its after-school-special demeanor to show how easily a relationship between two people, who unexpectedly find themselves as soul mates, can be undermined by the baggage they can’t help carrying with them. When Hugo makes Odin crazy by telling him that he doesn’t understand the duplicity of white girls, it plays into something Odin has probably heard before in black society. And when his paranoia overwhelms him and he hate-fucks Desi, her trust in him is also broken. Had Nelson and Kaaya been less concerned with following Othello to the letter and rather had pursued this love affair into uncharted cinematic waters, O might have been more than an unresolved mixture of gimmickry and good intentions.