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'Othello'-inspired 'O'
turns war into basketball

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Mekhi Phifer is a hot-shot hoops star and the only black student at Palmetto Grove Academy in "O," the new film based on Shakespeare's "Othello." Phifer plays a basketball warrior and hero whose life takes a dark, tragic turn toward bloodshed.

The character's name? Odin "O" James, a sly allusion to the man tried for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Like that Brentwood night of June 12, 1994, and like Shakespeare's 400-year-old story, the movie ends explosively -- so much so, in fact, that the original studio, Miramax, held "O" in its vault for almost two years, in large part because the film's violent conclusion resembles the recent massacres at Columbine High School and other schools around the country. Ultimately, Miramax abandoned the movie, selling it in April to Lions Gate, which finally released "O" last week.

To see the movie is to understand how high school basketball can be the setting for tragedy. The director, Tim Blake Nelson, plays out the story's essential conflicts and sets the movie's tone on the basketball floor, foreshadowing the grim mayhem of the movie's final minutes. Just as Shakespeare's original character, Othello, found glory as a general on the battlefield, O James (played by Phifer) brings the same intensity to the sports arena. As director Tim Blake Nelson told me this week, "This film uses Shakespeare's tragedy to illuminate the causes and consequences of high school violence. ... (Basketball is the) most likely version of war for a high school setting. In 'O' we turn war into basketball."

The dark story of "O"
An English professor recently told me that she can't stand to teach, read, or watch "Othello" any more. "It's just too damn much," she said.

I know what she means -- Shakespeare's story of a black general convinced by a conniving friend to murder his white wife is a wicked, unrelenting descent into suspicion and anguish. The action of the play is woven so tightly that it lets in almost no air or light and, in the end, it wears you out.

In "Othello," the title character is a Moorish general whose black skin and skill in battle make him unique in Venice. He's married to Desdemona, the bold and intelligent daughter of a Venetian senator. The two of them are genuinely devoted to one another until Iago, one of Othello's soldiers, convinces Othello that Desdemona has betrayed him. Anxious and enraged, Othello eventually strangles his wife and then, when he learns that Iago has lied to him all along, kills himself.

The basketball scenes in "O" are machismo on parade, complete with rim-hangin' dunks and monster crossover dribbles.
Nelson and first-time screenwriter Brad Kaaya set the action around an elite South Carolina prep school basketball team, and they remain true to the dark spirit and plot of Shakespeare's story. From opening sequences filmed in shadows to a closing shot in the bleak night light of a siren, the film wallows in shrouded, ugly impulses. Wary of what he calls the "teening down" of classic texts, Nelson was determined to tell the story straight, to be as grave and relentless as Shakespeare in the film's exploration of a teenage world full of desire and deceit. The movie is very faithful to the scene-by-scene development of Shakespeare's play. "It was important for the writer and me to follow Shakespeare's play because the original plot is extraordinarily effective," Nelson says. "Every time we tried to deviate, our ideas felt cheap."

The result is a film stripped of irony that hopes viewers will buy into the dark mood and desperate politics of its story. Nelson's gone all in, without apologies, slowly building toward a bloody, anguished conclusion.

In Nelson's version, Odin is charming and popular and he's dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the daughter of the school dean. She's smart and fearless, and head over heels for O. An appealing blend of devotion and lust colors the early scenes between them.

Hugo (Josh Hartnett), a teammate of Odin, plays the Iago role. He wishes he were as talented and beloved as O, who, as Nelson recently wrote in the New York Times, is worshiped throughout the school "just as the greater society idolizes its sports heroes."

The performances of the young stars are strong throughout. Phifer, who debuted in Spike Lee's "Clockers" and will soon star as Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers in a TV remake of "Brian's Song," plays Odin with a powerful sense of reserve. Stiles, now a teen icon after lead roles in "10 Things I Hate About You" (an adaptation of Shakespeare's romantic comedy "The Taming of the Shrew") and the interracial romance "Save the Last Dance," is coy and brave as Desi. And Hartnett ("The Faculty" and "Pearl Harbor") makes us believe the mean-spirited architect of Desi's and O's downfall is almost worthy of our pity.

Hip-hop and hoops
Julia Stiles is coy and brave as Desi in "O."
At Palmetto Grove, nearly all of the students in the white upper-middle-class prep school have adopted hip-hop culture and lingo. While Nelson and Kaaya do not fully explore this phenomenon, they do use it to move the plot.

In Shakespeare's play, Iago manipulates Othello by using language to twist the truth. At some level, Shakespeare is writing about trash-talking. He understands the ways we can use language to get in each other's heads, to knock our opponents off their game.

In "O," Nelson and Kaaya put hip-hop slang into the mouths of its main characters to echo the rhetorical flavor of "Othello." Further, they suggest that Odin's street-cred brand of basketball is so universally appealing at Palmetto Grove that it's become a way of life.

And maybe most importantly, the teen lingo provides Desi the opportunity to betray O. In this way, the movie brings out something the play only hints at: Hugo comes at O as an insider -- O calls him his "boy for life." They share a language and play for the same team, so Odin sees Desi as someone who will always have his back. This is the innocent trust we all feel as teenagers, the sort of thing that comes in knowing who your friends are by knowing what they wear, who they hang with, what music they listen to.

There were times in watching "O" when I missed Shakespeare's intricate word play, when I wanted the wicked doubleness of a well-chosen phrase or the haunting echo of aggression that lingers in seemingly innocent comments. But the hip-hop speak grew on me to the point where it sounded right for a high school community full of kids experimenting with identities and posing as what they want to be.

Most of the scenes in "O" remain true to the dark spirit and plot of Shakespeare's story.
While clever in their use of language, Nelson and Kaaya stick to the tried and true in the basketball scenes. The hip-hop soundtrack punctuates the usual brilliance and bravado -- machismo on parade, complete with rim-hangin' dunks, monster crossover dribbles, streetball head waggles, and barking blocked shots.

Such familiar stuff made me wonder about the ways most filmmakers imagine sports. Why, for example, must all movie coaches scream and shout like wind-up drill sergeant dolls, as Martin Sheen does in "O"? And do all basketball scenes have to end in game-winning shots and postgame delirium?

Nelson and Kaaya use basketball symbolically, and to introduce the volatility that eventually underwrites Hugo's betrayal of O and O's murder of Desi. Here, in his production notes, Nelson describes the team's mascot: "The hawk graphic on the uniform or team jacket will be ferocious, and that's how the team will play and be coached. Our coverage, particularly of Odin, will be tight and explosive; we'll explore the violence of the game; it's physicality as much, if not more than, its grace."

The equation between sports and violence is clichéd and reductive, but it's consistent with the severe approach Nelson wanted to take. "This is the most sensible arena for our Othello figure to become the same sort of hero he does in Shakespeare's play," Nelson explains. "Absent of war itself, we tend to venerate our sports heroes as former societies did their generals (and we wanted) the film (to) address the extremely dangerous level of adulation afforded sports heroes in our country."

One of the byproducts of that approach is that basketball becomes more meaningful. In combining hoops and tragedy, "O" makes the point that high school sports aren't diversions, they're charged-up events with real, and sometimes reckless, power on display. And in telling the story of relationships between young lovers and young friends through the prism of basketball, the movie recognizes that sex, trust, commitment, and anxiety are all in play in the games kids perform. The seriousness of what goes down between O, Desi, and Hugo makes basketball seem even weightier.

"Sports aren't worthy of tragedy in and of themselves," Nelson told me. "How we idolize sports figures, and what that does to them, and to those who aspire to their positions in our society, is certainly the stuff of tragedy. Money and fame in sports work in part to make our update of Othello to a high school basketball setting plausible."

The movie assumes that sports are a dominating aspect of teenage reality.
As Nelson suggests in his production notes, the basketball court is the place where young people are "most in command of their bodies and their world," allowing them to show off a kind of "precocious maturity." This maturity is real enough within teenage circles, and it's rewarded by adoring and encouraging parents in the larger community, but, of course, it has naiveté and inexperience at its heart. For Nelson, this is what makes high school, and high school sports, such an appealing context for the story of "Othello." "(It) combines the acute and unwieldy passion of childhood with the ability to act that comes with adulthood," he said in the Times.

"O" doesn't take time out from the plot to analyze this cocktail of adolescent impulses and adult capacities, it takes it as a given. And it doesn't comment on the fact that sports dominate high school culture so much as it assumes this is part of teenage reality. The idea, I think, is to tell a realistic story, to make the series of events that ends the lives of four main characters seem horrifying but not totally incomprehensible.

Part of the shock and sadness people felt when kids opened fire on each other at Columbine and Santana came from the idea that innocent, sacred grounds were spoiled by the intrusion of violence from the real world outside. With "O," Nelson uses the manipulative, racially and sexually charged story of "Othello" to claim that those schools were already sophisticated and potentially dangerous places.

The end result, he says, is that "(the) film uses Shakespeare's tragedy to illuminate the causes and consequences of high school violence. I feel those causes, however common from occurrence to occurrence, are always personal. In our case, the Iago character is fueled by forces we can all recognize, some having to do with his parents, some having to do with his peers. In the end, other students lie dead because neither he, nor those around him, fully recognize the extent of his evil or his pain. If this film does anything, I hope it will make those who see it more sensitive to the kinds of scenarios which add up to the tragedy of 'O.' "

Eric Neel is the former managing editor of SportsJones, an online magazine for sports culture. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa.

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