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Far More Black than Black: Stereotypes, Black Masculinity, and Americanization in Tim Blake Nelson’s O

In the director’s commentary for O (2001), Tim Blake Nelson draws attention to his recurring use of red, white and blue—colors appearing throughout the film in various forms, from shots of the American flag to serving as the Hawk’s team colors. Nelson explains, “the idea was of course to say that this was an American version of Shakespeare’s tragic tale.” In addition to the patriotic color work, Nelson stresses the American reframing of Othello by transplanting the story’s action from Renaissance Venice and Cyprus to a posh high school in contemporary South Carolina—thereby prompting critical preoccupation with the effect created by having such a violent story acted out by teenagers speaking modern English.1 This emphasis on the film’s depiction of teen violence and identity was further driven by the fact that the tragic 1999 Columbine shootings stalled O’s intended release. As a result, critical discussions of O have paid only marginal attention to the importance of the film’s American setting. While the film’s high school milieu has invited critical dialogs about violence, fidelity, and language,2 attending to the play’s relocation to the American South prompts a different focus—a reconsideration of racial representation in O.

Far More Black than Black: Stereotypes, Black Masculinity, and Americanization in Tim Blake Nelson’s O  Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 1: This shot of the American flag comes early on in the film and highlights the way Nelson stresses the adaptation’s American setting.

By and large, scholarly critics who engage with race in O frequently commend its depiction of Odin’s (the Othello character) racial identity.3 Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, for example, asserts that the film’s stereotypical characterization of Odin provides “ways of seeing—and not seeing—the advents of contemporary racism and social injustice in American society” (234).  Though more skeptical, Mark Thornton Burnett’s and Barbara Hodgdon’s respective readings of O also affirm its racial representation. Burnett recognizes that “At first sight” O appears to subscribe to “negative racial stereotypes” (69). Yet Burnett counters what he sees as a superficial reading by pointing to Odin’s contradictory, hybrid identity as established on the basketball court and in his final speech, moments in which he shifts between black and white markers of selfhood that dismantle said stereotypes. More than other literary critics, Hodgdon addresses the stereotypes in O, pointing to the way that Odin’s sexual relationship with Desi (the Desdemona character) invokes the racial memory “that black men rape white women [which] constitutes and sustains the illusory basis for lynching” (102). Through Odin’s violence and inarticulacy, Hodgdon admits that until his last scene, “he evokes the cliché of violent black masculinity” (103). She hedges, however, noting that due to his status on the basketball court and his positioning through the movie’s music, “O also is hot-wired to other, arguably more positive stereotypes.” Hodgdon concludes with tepid praise, “O’s own last words, indicting racism’s root cause, may not be enough, but at least O dreams itself as a critical film that frankly addresses the contradictions encoded in its contemporary re-location” (104). Ultimately then, even as she sharply recognizes the problems in Odin’s depiction, Hodgdon too faintly commends O’s engagement with race.4

These recuperative readings of the film’s racial dynamics develop, in large part, I argue, from not putting enough pressure upon Nelson’s choice to make what he calls in his director’s commentary a “distinctly American tale.” Just as setting Othello in high school has particular interpretive ramifications, so too does setting Shakespeare’s tragedy in the American South.5 Here, I assert that this Americanization crucially informs the representation of race in O. By turning to historical contextualization and contemporary race theory, I clarify how significantly Odin’s representation as a young black man who wreaks havoc on a prep school in the Deep South taps into pernicious American stereotypes about black masculinity. Furthermore, by building on the careful analysis of the film’s details and camerawork as exemplified by Gregory M. Colón Semenza, Burnett, and Hodgdon (and too often eschewed in many considerations of the film), I argue that through a wide range of adaptive choices, the film trades in and ultimately reifies malignant American fantasies—both historical and modern—about black men that overwhelm the film’s attempts at positive representation.

Exploring the significance of these adaptive strategies regarding race invites a reassessment of O through the framework of ethics, “an essential, often missed, term in discussions of Shakespeare and appropriation” (Huang and Rivlin 2). In Shakespeare and the Ethics of Appropriation, Alexa Huang and Elizabeth Rivlin build upon discussions of the ethical engagement between self and other—and the text’s role in this engagement—by Lawrence Buell, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas, defining the ethical as that which “constitutes a good action,” especially in terms of “responsibility to cultural otherness” (2). Regarding the text and ethics, they claim that texts “act as substitutes and proxies for, and extensions of, people, including audiences, readers, and critics, in our relationships to others. We interpret ethics, in this context, to mean an obligation, care, or duty on the part of one actor toward another or others, even or especially when others are encountered in the form of texts or works” (3). I want to situate my discussion of O within this ethical context, for in this movie both characters and viewers directly engage with and respond to the Other. In his treatment of violence in the film, Semenza claims that Nelson “[structures] his film dialectically,” by which he means that Nelson provides “multiple, contrary interpretations (theses and antitheses) of teenage violence” which in turn “demand that readers work actively to synthesize what the film refuses to simplify for them” (101). I suggest that when it comes to race, however, the film is not so dialectic, resulting in a depiction of black masculinity that is—even if unintentionally—not performed with care.

Certainly, Othello as source text raises inherent problems regarding racial representation—the lingering question about whether Othello embodies racist conventions or whether “he behaves as he does because he is a black man responding to racism, not giving a pretext for it” (Quarshie 21). In his thoughtful essay “Second Thoughts About Othello,” actor Hugh Quarshie elaborates on the ways production choices crucially guide the answer to this longstanding query. Understood through Huang and Rivlin’s context, production choices thus help determine whether a particular version of Othello is or is not ethical in its engagement with the Other. As applied to O, by recognizing the way that the film’s American context provides its driving interpretive framework, we can understand how the accumulation of Odin’s stereotypical depictions and behaviors obscure a racial dialectic, ultimately undermining attempts at complex racial representation. In turn, we can grasp the disturbing way the film adds Shakespeare’s authorizing imprimatur to a long-held boogieman of white American racial nightmares. O, therefore, prompts us to question the ethics of adaption as it reveals itself to be part of racialized media representations that devastatingly shape current attitudes about young black men.

Black Buck Gets Loose in the Big House: Historical Stereotypes of Black Masculinity in O

Rather than tracing the depiction of stereotypes in O chronologically, it is helpful to consider them grouped by kind. The film’s American context invokes historical stereotypes about black men that became especially engrained in white American, and especially Southern, constructions of race leading up to and during the Civil War Era and Reconstruction. At the same time, it deploys modern, twentieth-century stereotypes associated with black masculinity.6 Admittedly, the two are not always distinct, as the dynamics of the former often influence representations of the latter. Even so, for clarity, it is useful to consider the two discreetly.

One historic caricature of black masculinity informing the film’s depiction of Odin is the brute, the “savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal” black man (Pilgrim). According to Sociologist David Pilgrim, during Reconstruction the brute caricature became prevalent as a means of arguing for slavery’s ability to suppress black men’s inherent animalistic tendencies. White supremacists claimed that “Freedom […] would stimulate the black man’s worst passions, leading him to crimes of arson, murder, and rape” (Wood 25). Furthermore, turning the black man into a vicious figure justified the savage act of lynching, so that “as lynchings became more common and more brutal, so did the assassination of the black character” (Pilgrim). Historian George M. Frederickson further notes, “These efforts to ‘explain’ or justify lynching help account for the popularity around the turn of the century of the stereotype of the ‘Negro as beast’” (275). Thus, uncontrollable violence becomes the signature of the brute, and it invites, even demands, violence in return as a means of control.

While it is difficult to say just how innate Odin’s own brute tendencies are, he certainly invokes the brute stereotype through his repeated and intense employment of physical violence, especially against the film’s white characters. One of the most vexed scenes in the movie’s characterization of Odin, “a moment for which there is no equivalent in the play” (Leggat 255), comes when he beats up Roger (the Roderigo character) for supposedly telling the Dean, Desi’s father, that Odin raped Desi. The significance of this scene lies in the fact that it occurs before jealousy begins to affect Odin’s thinking and behavior, thereby suggesting that Odin innately tends toward having a violent nature. After the Dean confronts Odin, the scene cuts to Roger held back by Michael (the Cassio character), while Odin punches Roger and slaps him in the face. Odin further asserts his physical and social superiority by holding Roger in a chokehold, threatening, “if you ever lie to me again, I’ll fuck your punk ass up a lot worse than this. You understand me, Rog?” The camera then pans out into a long shot which shows Roger alone, curled in a fetal position on the ground, cowering in pain, thereby signaling his suffering and social isolation. This intimidation reveals two facets about Odin that suggest he is, in fact, a type of brute. First, he makes it clear that the repercussion for crossing him is physical violence worse than the beating that has left Roger unable to move. Second, Odin’s comment suggests that he beats up Roger simply for a perceived slight. It appears as if Odin confronted Roger, presupposing that Roger relayed false information to the Dean, which Roger subsequently denied when facing Odin. But we are never privy to how Odin comes to blame Roger. Without this epistemological clarity, Odin’s physical reaction to and against Roger could seem less than justified, thereby allowing the beating to be interpreted as the innate, unprovoked actions of a brute figure. Moreover, as Steve Criniti comments, “The ease with which Odin participates in this violent act reveals that it is not his first such fight” (119). Interestingly, these seemingly inherent violent tendencies not only help Odin assert his social superiority, but they also assist him on the basketball court.  In the second basketball game of the film, Odin repeatedly becomes aggressive with players of the opposing team, getting in their faces after making a shot. Alone, such behavior may be interpreted as the typical intimidation found on the basketball court. But read in light of Odin’s behavior toward Roger, one might instead see Odin as the brute whose menacing physicality can only just be contained.

Far More Black than Black: Stereotypes, Black Masculinity, and Americanization in Tim Blake Nelson’s O Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Odin punches Roger violently enough to leave him cowering on the ground; the camerawork makes Roger’s pain evident to the viewer.

This characterization of Odin as the black brute intensifies throughout the film, especially as jealousy over Desi’s supposed betrayal takes hold. After he suspects Michael of sleeping with Desi, Odin attacks him during basketball practice where they end up sprawled, fighting on the floor. Later, when Hugo (the Iago character) discusses Desi’s betrayal with Odin in the school boiler room, Odin pushes Hugo up against a boiler, nearly choking him as he once choked Roger. And lest we think that Odin only manifests his brutality against those he perceives as threats, during the dunk contest (to which I will return), he turns against a ball boy. After his dunk, a young, black boy attempts to retrieve the ball from Odin. This is one of the few non-white figures against whom Odin displays his aggression. The boy’s youth and the public nature of this physical confrontation both indicate the gravity of Odin’s behavior. Odin refuses to relinquish the ball, and when the boy tries to take hold of it, Odin grabs his collar and shoves him to the ground. The camera depicts this moment in a long shot, with almost a bird’s eye view, at once creating distance yet also letting the viewer know that all eyes in the stadium are on Odin. The spectators who moments ago cheered Odin’s dunk now audibly “boo” him. Odin’s violent tendencies therefore position him as the brute figure, a man who threatens and therefore belongs outside of Palmetto Grove’s society.

Another of the brute’s fundamental features is his sexual rapacity, especially regarding white women, a dynamic signaled by the term “black buck.” Riché Richardson explains that whites likewise developed the black buck stereotype as “an excuse for lynching” (58). According to Richardson, “it was necessary to subtend the model of black male docility, which had been dominant within the white paternalism of antebellum plantation ideology and classically emblematized in popular representations of Uncle Tom, with the invention, in the late nineteenth century, of the rapacious black buck whose sexual pathology and depravity were an ever-looking threat to white female purity in the South” (58). While the term black buck may make this stereotype seem distant, one firmly anchored in America’s past, bell hooks explains the significance of hypersexualizing the black male body and its connection to the act of rape:

Irrespective of class, status, income, or level of education, for many black men sexuality remains the place where dysfunctional behavior first rears its ugly head. This is in part because of the convergence of racist sexist thinking about the black body, which has always projected onto the black body a hypersexuality. The history of the black male body begins in the United States with projections, with the imposition onto the body of white racist sexist pornographic sexual fantasies. Central to this fantasy is the idea of the black male rapist. (67)

Just as the brute stereotype appears repeatedly in the film, so does the fantasy and discourse of the black male rapist that hooks identifies.

The film explicitly invokes the caricature of the black buck during a conversation between Odin and Desi in which Odin directly references his status as Other within Palmetto Grove. He and Desi lie down on her bed as she discusses the fact that he has had “experiences” while she touches a scar on his skin. A medium two shot reveals the lovers lying topless in bed. Both the scene’s shot and dialogue stress the difference in skin color between the two characters, adding a subtext to Desi’s comment about experiences. Her remark suggests that in part, her attraction to Odin stems from his exoticism, the fact that his black skin carries scars which her white skin does not. In one of the more complex scenes in the film, Odin immediately capitalizes upon and then deflates the racial dynamics of the moment. He claims that he received his scar because he was a “c-section baby” and his mother could not afford a good doctor. When Desi asks, “Are you serious?,” he jovially responds, “I fell off my skateboard.” This exchange reveals Odin’s ability to confront, negotiate, and upend the expectations raised by his blackness. He knows Desi longs for a story that fits the familiar narrative of black impoverishment and suffering, which he provides as a kind chastisement and gentle disruption of her assumptions. When he gives her the truth, it proves much more mundane. In fact, Odin receives his scar through an activity predominantly associated with white youth culture—skateboarding. Odin thus understands the racial dynamics informing his relationship with those at Palmetto Grove, and this scene demonstrates his ability to confront and dispel the stereotypes associated with his identity if he so chooses.

Yet as the scene advances, nuance clashes with stereotypes. In asserting his virility to Desi, Odin’s discourse reflects the more familiar, stereotypical, sexualized young black man familiar to American representations of black masculinity. Odin informs Desi that he is a “playa,” asserting, “I pulled you cuz I’m that kind of nigga.” Here, Odin appropriates a racial epithet, transforming it into a badge of pride. Yet at the same time, his use of “playa” and “nigga” fits the familiar narrative of sexualized black masculinity. Given this context, as Semenza notes, “the camera and dialogue work to heighten the audience’s awareness of racial difference” (112), as does Odin and Desi’s discussion about which race can use the word “nigga.” This complex racial negotiation comes to a head in a line that directly invokes the stereotypes I have been addressing. Desi reminds Odin, “You said that I was so fine that you’d let me dress you up and play Black Buck got loose in the big house.” With this loaded statement, Desi reveals the underlying erotic fantasies that fuel her and Odin’s relationship. Reversing the sexual dynamics of black masculinity, Odin appears to be willing to subject himself to Desi, to let her dress him up. And yet this sexual fantasy also places Desi in a position of subjugation. When the black buck gets loose in the big house, it usually means the subjection of the white woman to the black man’s sexual desires through rape. Thus, this moment is both transgressive and troubled all at once. On the one hand, Odin and Desi appropriate a disturbing stereotype for their own mutual sexual fantasies. On the other hand, their sexual play reifies the stereotype of the hypersexualized black male.

Far More Black than Black: Stereotypes, Black Masculinity, and Americanization in Tim Blake Nelson’s O Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 3: On the right, the scene communicates Desi and Odin’s closeness as they discuss race; on the left, one sees Odin on the margins of the screen as the two address his blackness, a marginality visually reflecting his racial status in Palmetto Grove.

This tension may be lost on the viewer, for the characters focus solely on the playfulness of Desi’s comment. She deploys this stereotype tongue in cheek, its use tempered by the fact that Odin made the reference first. Moreover, Odin responds good-naturedly, stating that she cannot repeat what he said because “Another black person knows I said something like that I can get my ‘Sufferin Negro League card’ revoked.” Yet Odin’s continued placement on the margin of the screen indicates that the conversation may not be as innocuous as the characters appear to take it. Even so, their discussion initially suggests that perhaps the film’s characters have moved beyond stereotypes, that instead of adhering to them they undermine them by turning a white, Southern fantasy into their reciprocal sexual desire.7 As such, the interracial relationship between Odin and Desi could be defined by the way it destabilizes typical racial characterizations.

A fundamental problem with the film, however, is that Odin ultimately mirrors the black buck, a transformation emphasized by Desi’s earlier explicit reference. Odin and Desi escape to a motel called The Willows for a romantic rendezvous, but Hugo’s machinations have tainted Odin’s opinion of her and their relationship. As they make love for the first time in the motel room, “[f]ollowing a highly erotic sequence of near-abstract extreme close-ups of body parts, her white skin against his blackness,” Odin looks into the mirror across the bed and sees himself on top of Desi (Hodgdon 103). The image suddenly transforms into Michael on top of Desi, allowing the viewer to partake in Odin’s jealous transference. Odin subsequently turns into the violent black male by becoming rough with Desi, a striking contrast to the intimate scene previously discussed.8 While the couple’s black buck fantasy establishes Odin as the submissive buck to Desi’s “big house” owner, here, Odin forces a role reversal, playing into the stereotype by dominating the white female in a deflowering rape scene. Desi tells Odin directly that he is hurting her and asks him to stop, but he does not. After the rape, Desi says nothing. Odin’s act strips her of her voice and agency. As such, it positions him as the antagonist of the young, virginal, white female, thereby turning him into the black buck stereotype.9

The Willows scene starkly characterizes Odin as a rapist and therefore criminal—though it should be noted that, disturbingly, nowhere does this film, strongly marketed to teenagers, ever indicate that the rape is, in fact, a crime. Nor does the film acknowledge that Odin now embodies one of the most pernicious long standing stereotypes about black men. In his director’s commentary, Nelson directly confronts the rape. He remarks, “This scene is of course going to end very badly in date rape.” He elaborates, “I’ve always felt that this scene [of which he is very proud] … it’s the most provocative scene in the movie” and the one to which “intelligent people have objected” while “an equal number have praised it.” Is it possible that intelligent people have objected not just to the rape, but to the rape of a white woman by a black man? Unfortunately, Nelson does not comment on the importance of race to this scene.10 It could be argued that we should commend Nelson for tackling the difficult topic of date rape. But in doing so, we cannot ignore the racial dynamics informing this rape, which make it a date rape that specifically manifests white America’s long-held fears about black male sexuality.11

The Ghetto that Just Pops Out: Modern Stereotypes of Black Masculinity in O

Through Odin’s physical and sexual violence, we see how he appears as a manifestation of the historical brute and black buck caricatures crafted as a way of demonizing black masculinity. Today, the strategies have changed, but black masculinity continues to pose a threat to American conceptions of self and Other. The violence of the brute stereotype has transformed into the common image of the criminal black male, often epitomized by the “thug” gangster figure associated with hip-hop culture. In her monograph Lockstep and Dance: Images of Black Men in Popular Culture, Linda G. Tucker explains that American representations of the black male work within a system of confrontation and containment.12 In O, we see this dynamic of confrontation and attempted containment through two of the common representational loci of black men Tucker identifies—basketball and hip-hop culture. Both Burnett and Hodgdon see basketball as site that adds complexity to Odin’s identity and status within Palmetto Grove, with Burnett stressing “that constructions of race can be deployed to underscore achievement, even as they are used to point up antipathetic and historically entrenched stereotypes” (67). I agree that basketball highlights Odin’s personal achievement. But I would like to put more pressure on basketball’s racialized status so that we can understand how these “entrenched stereotypes” likely overshadow any success Odin enacts on the court.

As Tucker notes, both black and white Americans imagine the basketball court—at least one located in the legitimized space of a school gymnasium or the professional sports arena—as a site that signals the potential integration of black men into hegemonic American society. The modern basketball court, however, is not devoid of long held stereotypes associated with black masculinity. Rather, the court allows for the black male to appropriately channel his supposedly inherent physical dominance, while simultaneously providing a means of controlling and commodifying his body. hooks observes, “Professional sports have constituted an alternative work arena for many black men. In that world the black male body once used and abused in a world of labor based on brute force could be transformed; elegance and grace could become the identifying signifiers of one’s labor” (21).13 Yet in addition to elegance and grace, the black male must also demonstrate competitive hostility on the court, which reinforces fears about black male physical dominance even as it supposedly contains it. This need for bodily aggression comes from the way that the more intense, confrontational form of “street” basketball became integrated into NBA play. As a result, “Today, the style of the game has become such that basketball spectators expect to see players—most of them black males—engaging aggressively with one another. Although the structure of the court denies spectators—most of them white—a protective distance from the objects of their voyeuristic gazes, the style of the game reinforces the pervasive image of black males as dangerous figures” (Tucker 89). Thus, even as it provides a means of social mobility and authorized celebrity for young black men, the basketball court holds in tension constructions of black masculinity by emphasizing the black male body and its various forms of physical dominance.

The racialized nature of this athletic domination can be seen most clearly in the film’s third basketball game.14 This game proves distinct due to the fact that black players comprise the team opposing Palmetto Grove—the Bulldogs—thereby no longer making Odin the only black male on the court. And it is this game that Nelson films most intensely. In his commentary, he explicitly notes that he wanted a “rougher” look for this game, which he achieved by placing a handheld camera in the middle of the court in order to catch its “spiky” and “jagged” nature. For Nelson, these shots show “the violence of the game” because “this game is just war.” He communicates this sense of violence through editing and camera shots that emphasize the game’s blocking, which contrasts with the second, less forceful basketball game in the film. By comparing the second game with the third, we find that film techniques highlight the racial dynamics underscoring the basketball competitions by creating a much more “warlike” third game—the one against the all-black team—that differs from the less confrontational second one.

In the film’s roughly two-minutes-long second basketball scene, the Hawks play an unnamed team of largely white players who look significantly younger than their opponents. The point of this competition, entitled in the scene selection menu “Star,” is to demonstrate Odin’s athletic prowess. As such, Odin and the Hawks dominate the court. In order to depict this domination, Nelson presents the opposing team as juvenile and inexperienced with the players barely blocking the Hawks. Moreover, all on-court aggression comes from the Hawks’ central players. In fact, the only physically strong response by the opposing team comes at the scene’s end when a player fouls Odin as he attempts what ends up being the game’s final shot. As such, this second basketball game against an all-white team comes across as significantly less forceful than the third basketball scene against an all-black one.

In a stark change in dynamic, the third basketball game shows physical aggression from both sides. The camera focuses much more on guarding across the court, such as when players from the Bulldogs—who look just as old and muscular as the players on the Hawks—surround and press closely and vigorously up against Hugo, Michael, and Odin, respectively. We also see the players from the Bulldogs create a screen in front of Odin, impeding his movement on the court. The crosscuts in the scene add to the tension. The scene includes 43 crosscuts over almost three minutes, cuts which focus on the players, the coach, and the cheering crowd. This number compares to 35 cuts in the aforementioned game, which focus on the Hawks and the crowd. The increased number of cuts adds to the energy, tension, and freneticism of the scene, creating the sense of athletic “war” Nelson desires to communicate. At the same time, longer tracking shots that follow the movement of the ball also comprise the scene. These shots emphasize the players’ athleticism while highlighting the gritty nature of the game by allowing the viewer to follow the intense court play. Nelson’s film techniques thus make it clear that the most physical, forceful, and gripping game occurs against the all-black Bulldogs, who are depicted as strong, fierce, hostile rivals on the court.

Far More Black than Black: Stereotypes, Black Masculinity, and Americanization in Tim Blake Nelson’s O Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 4: This moment illustrates the intensity and physicality of the racialized basketball game against all-black team, the Bulldogs, which Nelson characterizes and films as “war.”

Whether coincidental or not, Nelson’s crafting of the basketball game highlighting black athletes as the most intense and physically aggressive—a war game of sorts—works within the dynamic Tucker identifies. The basketball court becomes a site for displaying authorized physical dominance that, according to hegemonic white logic, the black male would otherwise turn against society through criminality. Put bluntly, this basketball scene plays into stereotypes about black male aggression that eventually spill off the court as Odin descends into jealousy immediately following this game. It is as if perhaps the war on the court has riled him so much that it cannot be contained, thereby inciting the violence to come.

Questions of racial male identity and basketball collide once more in the aforementioned dunk contest scene. Tucker notes the slam dunk’s hostile implications and demonstrates why it adeptly signals Odin’s viciousness: “the slam dunk is attended by a culture of violence signified by the sheer force with which players slam. Indeed, bruises on athletes’ hands, wrists, and forearms frequently reflect the force of the dunk. The emphasis produced by the aggression of the gesture suggests that the move is as much about violence as it is about artistry, grace, and athleticism” (88). As Odin moves toward the rim, the camera shifts from a medium shot to a close-up of his hostile face while all sound other than the ball hitting the court fades away. In slow motion, he rises up to the rim and dunks the ball, then the scene switches to real time as the glass of the backboard shatters.  While providing spectacle for viewers, the dunk signals Odin’s brutal physicality and prefigures the way that it will soon similarly shatter the wholeness of Palmetto Grove. Moreover, it invokes the violence Odin has previously demonstrated. Burnett notes, “proficiency in the game on the court, it is implied, is metaphorically related to prowess in the bedroom” (69), a predatory prowess already devastatingly and stereotypically enacted upon and against Desi. As he has done with Desi, Hodgdon explains, “O ‘rapes’ the backboard, shattering its glass backing before holding the hoop high over his head” (103). This scene leaves little doubt that Odin is angry, but more than that he is violent and dangerous. He becomes what the white majority fears on the very court that once made him one of them.

Far More Black than Black: Stereotypes, Black Masculinity, and Americanization in Tim Blake Nelson’s O Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Odin’s aggressive dunk, his expressly angry celebration of it, and his hostile response to the young boy all signal his escalating aggression and fit within the stereotype of the angry, violent black man.

In O, the modernized black brute also appears in a less obvious but just as insidious fashion through the repeated association of Odin with another common black masculine stereotype—the “thug” gangster of hip-hop culture. Tucker argues:

In rap, representations of black men bearing far more than traces of their historical antecedents return in spectacular and audible forms. Although individual celebrities in other arenas, such as sport, have performed the role of the black brute, never has it been exploited for profit and pleasure to the extent that has been the case in rap. The figures of thugs or gangstas—America’s worst nightmares, as Tupac once called them—return in rap as speaking subjects. (131)

The black brute stereotype is the “historical antecedent” to which Tucker refers (135). hooks agrees when she observes, “Gangsta culture is the essence of patriarchal masculinity. Popular culture tells young black males that only the predator will survive” (27). This formulation of Odin’s identity may be the least obvious since the plot of the film does not directly associate Odin with rap or gangster culture. Instead, Odin’s relationship to hip hop comes from the aesthetic decision to repeatedly employ rap songs as part of the film’s soundtrack.

Yet this decision is not merely aesthetic; it is also racialized. The film opens with a much more traditional musical choice as the aria “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello plays over a shot of doves in a bell tower. Interestingly, Hugo, the white antagonist, provides the perspective for this scene since his voiceover likewise opens the film. It is not until Odin appears that hip hop becomes the dominant musical force. Scholars and purveyors of popular culture alike widely acknowledge that even if most rap artists are black, hip hop is no longer the sole provenance of black culture, as a film like 8 Mile (2002) which follows the rise of a white rapper, exemplifies. Yet the contrast of music in O suggests that in this film, hip hop still signifies along traditional racial divides. Nelson notes in his commentary that the opera music is intended to “clash with another feature of the film, which is the use of rap music throughout.” In part, Nelson and music supervisor Barry Cole’s decision to use hip-hop music may largely be one of audience appeal. Nelson explains that he originally cut the second basketball scene to the drinking song from act two of Otello, but ultimately he and Cole swapped it out for a song by Mos Def and Talib Kweli because the drinking song “didn’t work” since it was “too pretentious.” As Hodgdon observes, the movie often deploys hip hop in association with white characters, and the lyrics of the songs selected do, indeed, suggest a more positive representation of Odin. At the same time, however, one cannot ignore the fact that while hip hop may be connected to white culture, the film does not enact a reversal; the “high art” opera music of white culture never frames Odin.15 Furthermore, hip hop dominates moments of aggression, such as Odin on the court or when rap duo Outkast’s “Aquemini” opens the Willow scene—which will soon transform into a moment of interracial rape. As such, even as the lyrics attempt to valorize Odin’s character, his descent into the black brute stereotype becomes aurally linked to the “thug” of rap culture.16

But nowhere does Odin most epitomize and confront the modern “thug” stereotype than in his final scene. Given Odin’s stereotypical characterization throughout the movie, it is not surprising that, having just murdered Desi, we find him standing on the dormitory porch, wearing a dark gray sweatshirt, baggy jeans, and Timberland boots with laces untied, waving a gun, and surrounded by the flashing lights of cop cars. Odin makes himself a violent spectacle once more by shooting himself in front of various bystanders. Before he does so, however, he attempts to undermine any direct correlation between his racial identity and his behavior. It is this moment that literary critics most often turn to as evidence for the film’s dialectical racial representation—its complication rather than reinscription of stereotypes. Odin commands the bystanders’ attention, claiming that they will call him “the nigga that lost it back in high school.” He asks that they remember and tell the world that he loved Desi, but he also exclaims, “You tell them it’s not where I’m from that’d make me do this.”17 Odin here references the stereotypical associations he knows will plague him. This truly is an impassioned plea for onlookers within the film, and perhaps without, to deny the impetus to blame race for Odin’s behavior.

It is difficult, however, to imagine that Odin’s entreaty will resonate with either audience given the stereotypical aggressive behavior preceding this scene. Moreover, his visual depictions in the moments where he proves most violent and threatening to white society work at odds with his supplication by reinforcing typical “thug” depictions of black masculinity. Particularly notable is the fact that in the instance he decides to murder Michael and Desi, he wears a hoodie. Certainly, hoodies are common apparel on any high school or college campus, especially those featuring competitive sports teams. Yet Odin’s hoodie is plain and black, and it takes on a different cultural resonance because he is a young black male. In detailing the hoodie’s cultural history for Rolling Stone, journalist Denis Wilson explains that the garment moved from working man’s clothes to a counter cultural symbol due to its association in the 1980’s and 90’s with both hip hop and skateboarding culture, respectively. Wilson observes, “From its association with punk and hip-hop to skater culture, the hoodie has a history of being adopted by youth-driven communities once relegated to the fringes, imbuing it with an iconoclastic, sometimes criminal, subtext.” The link between black, hip-hop culture and hoodies, Wilson notes, only strengthened with “the emergence of especially hard-edged gangsta rap,” in which groups developed a “pared-down dress code to go along with their gritty attitudes,” dress codes which included the hoodie.18 Thus, in the moment that most powerfully articulates Odin’s danger to whiteness, his clothing visually perform the stereotypical violent black man. As such, he disseminates the very caricature he later attempts to challenge.

The film therefore creates a vexed conclusion for Odin. Even as he tries to shift blame elsewhere—perhaps the exclusive white culture in which he dwells, perhaps his jealousy—by aurally and visually characterizing him in a way that echoes the common cultural “thug” figure, and by depending so thoroughly on stereotypes as a shortcut for depicting an individual in whose life race plays a defining role, the film makes it hard not to blame Odin’s Otherness for his actions. By representing Odin as the black brute and the criminal black male, the film thus memorializes Odin as the vicious black man of racialized white fantasy, making him the embodiment of virulent American stereotypes.

Hoodies and Handguns: Conclusion

O’s representation of Odin has ramifications that extend beyond a particular interpretation of the film. Any legitimization of stereotypes concerning black masculinity affects how we view black men on a daily basis. In a recent Huffington Post article written in light of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Professor Darron T. Smith notes that the media depicts a variety of “typical roles” for black men, “most damaging, the violent black man as drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug.” These representations in turn “fuel misperceptions and perpetuate misunderstandings among the ‘races,’” to the point where “negative understandings of black males are consistently used to justify the racial inequities they encounter in a number of institutions.”

When the medium negatively depicting black masculinity is a Shakespearean adaptation, the representation takes on particular significance because of Shakespeare’s authorizing specter. As L. Monique Pittman argues in Authorizing Shakespeare on Film and Television: Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Adaptation, even as film and televisual adaptors of Shakespeare attempt to assert their own authority in the shadow of the great Bard, they also depend on his authority as a means of shaping their work. This contest for authority, she explains, crucially informs adaptations’ representations of gender, class, and race. These representations thus take on greater significance due to the fact that they are associated with Shakespeare and his canon.19 Concerning racial representation, African-American journalist and cultural critic Touré (Touré Neblett) cautions, “Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition” because there are those who will look at young black men and automatically see “a villain or a criminal or something fearsome.” When that violence, fearsomeness, and criminality is portrayed in a Shakespearean adaptation, it has potentially greater cultural and social implications, for the aura and cultural legacy of Shakespeare adds legitimacy to the depiction.20

Semenza asserts that viewers who blame Odin’s “blackness” or “black culture” “should be paying closer attention” (115). But with the preponderance of stereotypical depictions of Odin, I suggest that the attention viewers have to pay is too close, for a dialectical counterbalance to these vexed representations is all too easy to miss. To return to Huang and Rivlin’s discussion of ethical Shakespearean appropriation, what we are left with, then, is something less than good, responsible action toward a cultural Other. The stereotypes presented—Odin as violent, a basketball player, a drug addict, a thug, a rapist, and a murder—take on added cultural meaning due to the film’s American context and therefore dominate the film. This dynamic thereby limits the efficacy garnered from potential racial counternarratives, including Odin’s final plea. Through its lack of care, we are thus left with an adaptation less than ethical in its depiction of black masculinity. Even more disturbing is that this adaptation becomes a part of the media voices that reinscribe prejudicial attitudes toward black masculinity. Burnett astutely analyzes an often overlooked facet of the film’s final moments:

Further compromising the ending’s recuperative gestures is the discovery of the fictional transmission of the film’s elaboration of its racial rehearsals. The montage of conversations with a film crew, and the self-conscious crane-shot that shows the body-bagged participants being loaded into an ambulance, remind us of other forces that determine and divide identity, technologies of media reproduction that are typically interested in sound-bite, scandal, selective representations and the broadest picture. (85)

While a different medium, O is likewise guilty of selective representation and only adds more fuel to the ideological fire of precisely these other media forces.

The recent #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Twitter commentary on the media’s discussion of Michael Brown makes it painfully clear how much Burnett’s point holds true concerning media representations of black identity. This hashtag designates posts in which African-American youth (mostly males) place an affirming photo of themselves (graduation, posing with family, displaying a military uniform) next to one depicting them in stereotypical “thug” fashion (at a party, making a “thug face,” posing in a hoodie) in order to ask which one the media would use if they were shot. The point is that too often, the depictions we see emphasize the criminal stereotypes embedded in the American psyche without any counternarrative made available.21 This is precisely what happens in O, a representation complicated all the more by Shakespeare’s cultural weight. We must thus be vigilant in identifying and analyzing the perhaps unintentional yet potentially dangerous interpretive, paradigmatic, and therefore ethical repercussions produced when adaptive choices intersect with representations of race, as occurs with Nelson’s Americanization of Othello. We must, ultimately, avoid opening up the possibility of the all too easy and high cost cop out: It’s not racist. It’s Othello.


Thanks to the editors at Literature/Film Quarterly for their assistance with this essay. I extend my sincerest gratitude to L. Monique Pittman, Karl Bailey, and Ante Jerončić, my friends and colleagues in all things research, especially its ethical components. I appreciate the feedback received during a “Shakespeare and Shakespearean Criticism” panel at the Midwest Modern Language Association and provided by colleague Michael Slater when this piece was in its earliest stages. I am also thankful to Gabriel Montes for his wide-ranging comments, especially on hip-hop culture and the hoodie. Many thanks likewise to student workers Dakota Hall and Ludanne (Danni) Francis for their research and editorial assistance. And I am particularly grateful to the numerous scholars working on Shakespeare and race that I have had the privilege of meeting over the last few years; their scholarship and conversations have significantly shaped the thinking of this piece

1 O premiered at the end of the 1990s teen-Shakespeare trend.  For further discussion of teen Shakespeare films, see Sarah Neely, “Cool Intentions: The Literary Classic, the Teenpic, and the ‘Chick Flick.’” Retrovisions: Reinventing the Past in Film and Fiction. ed. Deborah Cartmell and I.Q. Hunter (London: Pluto, 2001)74-86; Richard Burt, “Afterword: T(e)en Things I Hate about Girlene Shakesploitation Flicks in the Late 1990s, or, Not-So-Fast Times at Shakespeare High.” Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema. ed. Courtney Lehmann and Lisa S. Starks (Madison: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 2002) 205-32; Ariane M. Balizet, “Teen Scenes: Recognizing Shakespeare in Teen Film.” Almost Shakespeare: Reinventing His Works for Cinema and Television. ed. James R. Keller and Leslie Stratyner (Jefferson, NC: Macfarland, 2004) 122-36; Jennifer Hulbert, Kevin J. Wetmore Jr., and Robert L. York, Shakespeare and Youth Culture (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); and Emma French, Selling Shakespeare to Hollywood: The Marketing of Filmed Shakespeare Adaptations from 1989 into the New Millennium (Hatfield: U of Hertfordshire P, 2006).

2 For a discussion of the way Nelson’s choices concerning language affect the film, see James M. Welsh’s argument concerning the ramifications of modernizing Shakespeare’s language in “Classic Demolition: Why Shakespeare is Not Exactly ‘Our Contemporary,’ or, ‘Dude, Where’s My Hankie,’” Literature/Film Quarterly 30.3 (2002): 223-27.

3 While by and large scholarly critics perceive the film’s racial dynamics in a positive light, film critics have been less generous. Amy Taubin (The Village Voice) focuses on the limitations that occur when the play jumps to screen, stating, “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.” Charles Taylor (Salon) similarly asserts, “Odin’s crudity is made racially specific in a way that Othello’s is not…He just seems to be surrendering to the thug that was always inside him.” And Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) concurs, noting how especially by the film’s end, Odin’s escalation of violence “carries uncomfortable—if unintentional—racist overtones,” so that “it turns Odin into…a young black man whose civilized façade is merely cover for an intrinsic and bottomless rage.”

4 More common are articles that briefly yet positively discusses O’s racial representation. Steve Criniti analyzes O’s hawk imagery, acknowledging that the association of Odin with the hawk positions him as predator and Hugo as prey. He counters, “However, if one were to look beyond the stereotypical surface, the roles are quite reversed. Through this reversal, Nelson and [screenwriter] Kaaya make a subtle and powerful comment on the dangers of buying into appearances and falling into seemingly comfortable stereotypes” (119). Gregory M. Colón Semenza develops a compelling consideration of the film’s depiction of violence, and in doing so briefly explains the intersection of violence with race. Semenza suggests that the movie moves beyond stereotypes through the way Odin’s final speech “explicitly rejects the idea that ‘black culture’ is responsible for the massacre” (116). A subset of this category are articles that analyze numerous Shakespearean adaptations, providing truncated readings of O and race. For example, in Frederik Luis Aldama’s essay “Race, Cognition, and Emotion: Shakespeare on Film,” he claims that in O, “we can better understand the role played by a systematic accumulation of details” (199). Unfortunately, the film receives the shortest treatment of the four movies Aldama treats. In fact, Aldama does not mention race explicitly in the four paragraphs addressing O.  Similarly, in his discussion of “National and Racial Stereotypes in Shakespeare Films,” Neil Taylor gives the film one paragraph in which he asserts that the film “cleverly sophisticates the play’s racial stereotyping” by “invoking conflicting media stereotypes in its portrait of O” and by having “O and his girlfriend Desi…discussing the politics of political correctness” (276, 277).

5 The film does not explore the culture of the South extensively; rather, South Carolina serves as an historically and culturally significant backdrop for the unfolding of the film’s events, yet one that does not invite any commentary within the world of the film. Various scholars, however, note the importance of the South’s representation in contemporary media. See Tara McPherson, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Durham: Duke UP, 2003), and Karen L. Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture (Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 2013).

6 While I focus on Southern beliefs about black masculinity given the setting of the film, it is important to note, as Forest G. Wood explains, that “The South, of course, has long been the favorite whipping boy of opponents of racial discrimination. However, during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the North and West were also active breeding grounds for inflammatory racism” (12, 13).

7 Of course, this moment also articulates Desi’s sexual desire, the dynamics of which prove compelling. By playing the game of “Black Buck,” Desi takes a white Southern male anxiety and turns it into a white Southern female’s desire. Celia R. Daileader discusses how this feminine desire plays a crucial role in what she calls “the Othello myth,” a representation of interracial couples in which the woman is often punished for desiring a black man. See Racism, Misogyny, and the Othello Myth: Inter-racial Couples from Shakespeare to Spike Lee (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005). For her discussion of O specifically, see 208-22.

8 Especially disturbing, as Hodgdon notes, is the fact that “As the scene concludes with close-ups of both, Desi’s hand touching O’s neck, the film cuts to the preening doves (her emblem as well as O’s); ambiguous and troubling, the shot hints that she really likes it” (103).

9 When discussing the signification of Othello, Desdemona, and their sexuality, Arthur Little Jr. argues “that the scene of sexual intercourse between them functions, for the on-and-offstage audiences alike, as the sexual site and sight of the play’s racial anxieties” (306). The same could be said for the rape scene in O, especially given the American historical context I am arguing informs the films’ depictions.

10 Nelson’s silence on the issue of race may be due to the fact that to him, Shakespeare’s Othello “has always seemed to me a story more about envy than about race, making it no less human, and all the more universal” (“There’s a Price”).

11 In this section, I have spent time tracing historical constructs of stereotypical black masculinity. There are, however, counternarratives to these prevalent fashionings of black male identity. For representative examples, see Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The Trope of the New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of Black Authors,” Representations 24 (1988): 129-55; Martin Summers, Manliness and its Discontents: the Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930 (Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 2004); and Marlon B. Ross, Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era (NY: NYU P, 2004).

12 Moreover, Tucker argues that this containment furthers the development of “the United States as a prison writ large” (4). For further discussion of the way that our current attitudes about race, and specifically black masculinity, intersect with issues of incarceration, see Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011), and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (NY: The New Press, 2012).

13 Tucker explains that basketball also reinforces black male sexuality and aggression in ways unique from most other sports because the uniforms allow those watching to see both the skin and musculature of the players much more easily, and their faces are also accessible to view. Thus, the “physical and emotional vulnerability of the majority of the players are stamped on the face of the game of basketball” (86). As such, basketball players’ bodies become a means of objectification.

14 Before he even sets foot upon the court in the film, Odin already subtly channels black male athletic aggression. His full name, Odin James, gives him the initials O.J. More than one scholar has noted the way that these initials invoke the infamous O.J. Simpson, now notoriously most known as the accused black murderer of his white wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Nelson likewise references this association, which makes one wonder, given that Odin will inevitably murder Desi, why the need to connect Odin to one of the most racially fraught trials of the twentieth century, a connection which only further reifies the stereotype of the violent, criminal black male who threatens white women.

15 To be clear, the aria from Verdi’s Otello does play over the film’s lingering focus on the dark hawk, who symbolizes Odin. Yet this music is never played over a direct representation of Odin himself.

16 In an article discussing Shakespeare and African-American music, Douglas Lanier articulates the exact high culture/low culture distinction implied by and likely underscoring the music choices in O. He observes, “What gives the conjunction of Shakespeare and African American music its special frisson is that throughout much of the last century the two have been emblematic of what have been perceived as distinct cultural realms. Shakespeare exemplifies highbrow art, fundamentally intellectual in its appeal and demanding specialist knowledge for its full appreciation, British in origin and tied to European cultural traditions, the very icon of the mainstream Anglo canon. African American music, by contrast, has been widely regarded as profoundly emotional, bodily, sexual, rhythmic, and exotic in its appeal; improvisational and performative and thus in a sense anti-literary; somewhat disreputable in its venues, styles, and uses and thus surrounded with an aura of popular transgression…” Though Lanier singles out jazz, the sexual, emotional, improvisational, disreputable, and transgressive qualities of African-American music likewise apply to hip hop.

17 It is very difficult to clearly understand Odin’s line here. For example, Leggat cites the line as “‘You tell them where I’m from that’d make me do this’” (256).  In the conference version of this paper, and in earlier drafts, I heard and therefore cited the line in the same way due to Phifer’s muddled delivery. It was not until I read other articles that cited the line correctly and used the Closed Captioning on the DVD that I was able to discern the line accurately. This potential confusion opens upon the possibility that audiences may, in fact, think that Odin blames his background and his status as racial Other for his current predicament, an assumption that would only be reinforced by the film’s stereotypical representation of black masculinity.

18 Wilson specifies, “The cover of the classic 1993 album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is a particularly grim depiction of the hoodie.” Rappers Talib Kweli and Mos Def, Dr. Dre, and Nas also wear hoodies on the covers of their albums released between the late 1990s and 2000.

19 Furthermore, we must remember that O makes up part of the teen Shakespeare canon, meaning that, as Hulbert, Wetmore, Jr., and York explain, it directly appeals to youth culture and is precisely the type of text likely to be employed in the classroom in an effort to impart to students Shakespeare’s continued relevance. Though anecdotal, Jonathan Burton’s discussion of which of Shakespeare’s plays his students have read or seen performed likewise suggests O’s potential popularity. He notes, “A handful have read just one. Most have read two or three, and many have seen popular Shakespeare-on-film iterations—predictably Baz Luhrman’s star-burnished Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Tim Blake Nelson’s O (2001), a post-Columbine adaptation of Othello” (43).  It seems that despite never becoming a box office hit, O has a significant cultural afterlife, aided by its appeal to a young generation and by the very Americanizing moves that make its depiction of black masculinity so problematic.

20 Two 2012 incidents remind us that several facets used to represent Odin’s identity still carry with them stereotypical associations, and they clarify just how tragic the reification of stereotypical black masculinity can be. The Trayvon Martin case signals the continued racialization of the hoodie. Like Odin, Martin was wearing a hoodie during his confrontation with George Zimmerman. For Zimmerman defenders, perhaps most notably Geraldo Rivera, the hoodie represented Martin dressing like a “thug” and thus asking to be treated like one. In response to such criticisms, numerous individuals, from Martin’s family to popular black entertainers, donned hoodies during the “Million Hoodie March” as a sign of solidarity and as a reminder that clothing should not signify in such a racialized manner. The more recent case of Michael Dunn, convicted of the attempted murder of black youth Jordan Davis, likewise exemplifies the dangers inherent in the culturally pervasive tropes of black male identity associated with Odin. Dunn confronted Davis about turning down his loud rap music. According to Dunn, Davis threatened him with a gun, which led Dunn to shoot at the vehicle. Police found no weapon within the car, however. What they did find was “a basketball, basketball shoes, clothing, a camera tripod and cups.” It is not a leap to say that, given the prominence of the violent black male stereotype, Dunn was either prepped to “see” a gun sticking out of the window of the Durango, or he believed it would be convincing to claim that he saw one. These cases remind us that media depictions of black men, such as Odin, matter because they influence “real life” perceptions and interactions.

21 Numerous texts discuss attempts to consciously combat the modern stereotypes I discuss here. For a representative sample, see Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West, The Future of Race (NY: Vintage, 1997); Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (NY: Vintage, 1998); Mark Anthony Neal, New Black Man (NY: Routledge, 2006); Masculinity in the Black Imagination: Politics of Communicating Race and Manhood. ed. Ronald L. Jackson II and Mark C. Hopson (NY: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2011); and Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now (NY: Atria Books, 2012).

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