As far as theater is concerned, Shakespeare is dead. No longer interested in the meaning of the plays, the work of Shakespeare serves primarily as staged excuses to play Wild West, Civil War or a day at Coney Island dress-up, with plot playing second chair to playtime. But oddly enough, film has rediscovered the Bard and has been pumping new life into his work. Whether it's a full-on classical approach such as Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night and Oliver Parker's Othello or a clever, modernized reworking like Ten Things I Hate About You, film audiences have been getting more sophisticated takes on the plays than playgoers.

The newest filmic retelling of a play, O, takes Othello out of Renaissance Venice and places the action in a prestigious private school in Charleston, S.C. There, Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), the lone African American in the student body, has become the star player on the school's basketball team. Odin has not only become the BMOC, he's dating the love of his life, Desi (Julia Stiles), daughter of the dean, and he's all but become his coach's surrogate son. But Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) already has a son, Hugo (Josh Hartnett), who is also on the basketball team. As with Iago, Hugo becomes blinded by jealousy of Odin and commits his life to ruining that of the young court hero.

Though this new concept could have been quite forced, if not
precious, screenwriter Brad Kaaya and director Tim Blake Nelson have created a taut, engaging work that completely honors the original text, while accomplishing something even more rare: making an intelligent film primarily aimed at young audiences. Nelson himself is a noted playwright and director, and achieved some small fame by directing the screen version of his haunting play, Eye of God. All of Nelson's work is based in intensive character studies, and so he pulls excellent performances from his relatively young cast.
As Odin, Phifer finely charts his character's descent from happiness into bloody madness. Hartnett's Hugo is equally powerful, as he deviously plans Odin's destruction. Though the "mysterious" motive for Iago's actions is here made more obvious by Hugo's desire to gain the love his father shows Odin, there are also the dropped hints of an unexamined passion for Odin that drives Hugo, just as there is in the original.

Another danger that Nelson and Kaaya avoid is insisting that O serve as a tract on race relations. Race certainly plays an important role, but less so than questions of class, a topic seldom explored in modern American culture. But O, at its source, is more interested in the dark cracks in men's souls that lead to tragedy. How many teen flicks have managed that? Q&A: Mekhi Phifer

Willamette Week interviews the star of O.


David Walker: At first, the premise of O--a modern retelling of Othello, set in a high school, with the central character a basketball player--sounds pretty stupid. What did you think when director Tim Blake Nelson first approached you?

Mekhi Phifer: What attracted me to the project was the script. The script was so dope, and it followed the Othello story to a T, and Tim is a very knowledgeable director-actor. Just feeling his passions helped me know I wanted to do this.

To me, Othello is the tale of a black man who is punished for overstepping his boundaries in white society. Is that how you perceive the story?

There's those undertones of the racial situation, but the forefront of the story is about love, and one jealous man...who wanted to destroy that love and to not see this individual--who is clearly a hawk, in a sense--win.

How do you think fans of Shakespeare's original version will react to your interpretation?

With this adaptation, people may have a harder time grasping it, because it hits them right at home--it's modern day, modern-day language. That could be their son or daughter in that situation. They're not used to seeing young black males with that much emotion, with that much love, with that much power.

Is it true there has been concern about releasing the movie because of its violent content?

At the end of the day, Othello, the tragedy, has the same amount of violence. You know what I'm saying? It's the same amount of shit. It's just that this touches them at home because it's a younger cast.

What do you think is the difference between O and, not just other recent Shakespeare-inspired films like Ten Things I Hate About You, but other films geared toward teen audiences?

Most of the Shakespearean renditions have more or less had comedic undertones. This doesn't have one ounce of that. To me, the teen movies that are out now, I'll never do. They're very condescending in nature. They don't give teens the credit of having human emotions--of having grown folks' emotions. They think all teens want to watch is stupid comedies of them trying to fuck all day. That's just not the case.

Rated R

Director Tim Blake Nelson played Delmar, one of the three fugitives, in Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?.