Politics and Warfare
Othello is a 1995 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play of the same name and directed by Oliver Parker. The movie, set in sixteenth-century Venice, is about Othello, a Moorish general of a Venetian army, who marries Desdemona, a white woman. He is a well-respected captain, except for two of his ensigns, Iago and Rodrigo, who envy him. Iago hates Othello because he passed him up for a promotion and gave it to another ensign, Michael Cassio, instead. Rodrigo does not necessarily hate Othello, but he is in love with Desdemona, Othello’s wife. Rodrigo hires Iago to break up Othello and Desdemona. Iago conjures up a plan to frame Desdemona for cheating on Othello with Michael Cassio. After constantly insinuating to Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him, Iago finally convinces Othello. Othello is overcome with rage and smothers Desdemona with a pillow, killing her. However, immediately after he kills her, Iago is exposed for lying. Othello is devastated that he murdered his innocent wife, so he stabs and kills himself. Iago is taken away to be tortured and executed for his lies.
Othello did poorly at the box office, grossing only $2.844 million against a budget of $11 million. The odds were not stacked in the movie’s favor; the Shakespearean tragedy was marketed as a Christmas movie and released on December 15. Reviews were mixed, but slightly on the positive side. IMDb gave it a 6.9/10, Roger Ebert gave it a 2/4, and Rotten Tomatoes had a Tomatometer score of 67% and an audience score of 64%. Almost all of the reviews praised Kenneth Branagh’s acting and Laurence Fishburne’s performance. The negative feedback mostly criticized the film’s adaptation of the play, asserting that the character of Othello was problematic and not true to the original play’s Othello. Roger Ebert said, “Many people seeing this film will read it as the story of a jealous black man who wins but cannot trust his white wife, and so kills her. There is a lot more to it than that.”
The film was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Othello, but most do not know that Shakespeare adapted his play from the story Un Capitano Moro (“A Moorish Captain”) by Cinthio, a sixteenth-century Italian novelist and poet. His story, written approximately sixty years before Shakespeare’s Othello, took a racist stance and condemned interracial marriage. The cause for Cinthio’s prejudice can be attributed to the long-standing Venetian-Ottoman rivalry over trade routes in the Mediterranean. While the Venetian Republic was on the decline, the Ottoman Empire was prospering, which caused Italians to be deeply concerned about victories and losses against the Ottoman fleets. Cinthio included both the military anxieties and the fear of cross-cultural encounters, which were both widespread at the time, by writing about a doomed marriage between a black man and a white woman. It is also believed that Cinthio based Un Capitano Moro on “The Three Apples,” a story from One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales from the Islamic Golden Age. Shakespeare puts a more positive spin on interracial marriage in Othello, though his main intention was not necessarily to advocate for interracial marriage. Although Shakespeare made Othello a respectable character, this did not reflect the views of a common English person in the early seventeenth-century, when the play was written. There was a small Black community in England during Shakespeare’s time, though Blacks were considered inferior to whites; Shakespeare’s Othello, in some respects, is considered to be ahead of its time.
Oliver Parker’s Othello was released after the media frenzy around the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The parallels drawn between Othello and Simpson in the media were significant. Both are black men who were highly regarded by the white society in which they lived. They were considered to be “white” black men because they did not embody the stereotypes that white people projected onto black people. For example, in Othello, the Duke tells Desdemona’s father, “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” Simpson even once uttered the words, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.!”, which fed into the negative stereotypes of black people. However, after being entangled in the murder of their white wives, both men lost their credibility and white society reverted back to its initial prejudices, wondering if black men could ever be trusted.
Although this filmis the first Othello movie to feature an actual black man as the main protagonist (all other films used blackface), the “othering” of the character still remains apparent. In the movie, Othello’s bald head, tattoos, earring, and even his facial hair flagrantly distinguish him from the rest of the white European characters. The biggest criticism of the movie was the fetishization of the black masculine body. The movie added several sex scenes that were (obviously) not in the original play. Lisa Starks described Othello’s representation in the film as a “screen fetish” and an “eroticized spectacle.” The film was branded as ravishingly sexy, which insinuated that sexual relations between a black man and a white woman were aggressive and dangerous. Even the movie poster features Laurence Fishburne staring menacingly into the camera, while Irène Jacob, who played Desdemona, embraces him and playfully whispers in his ear. In addition to fetishizing the black male body, the film also portrays Othello as sterner than the good-spirited Othello in the original play. Multiple reviews labeled him as homicidal in the beginning of the movie, even before he hears that Desdemona is cheating on him. This perpetuates the “angry black person” stereotype.
Othello (the film and play) features two major female characters: Desdemona and Emilia. Desdemona, Othello’s wife, represents the innocent and pure female archetype. The majority of her lines are about her unwavering love for Othello. Several reviewers criticized Desdemona’s portrayal in the movie for this reason. However, she does have some agency because of her steadfast love for, and dedication to, Othello despite everyone else’s, including her father’s, disapproval of their interracial relationship. The other female character, Emilia, is Desdemona’s hand servant and Iago’s wife. Emilia embodies a more feminist archetype, especially towards the end when she discovers that Iago is the one who started the rumor of Desdemona’s infidelity. She becomes infuriated at her husband and angrily confronts him in front of a room full of men while adamantly defending the late Desdemona’s innocent reputation. When Iago kills her for this, she demands that she be laid next to Desdemona. Her loyalty to her mistress is an example of women supporting each other, instead of pitting two women against each other.
Early Modern Era (c. 1500-1750)