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Movie Review

O

MPAA Rating: R for violence, a scene of strong sexuality, language and drug use

Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
CONTRIBUTOR

Very Offensive
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults
Genre:
Drama
Length:
1 hr. 31 min.
Year of Release:
2001
USA Release:
_____
Relevant Issues
Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer in “O”
Featuring: Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Martin Sheen, Rain Phoenix
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Producer: Eric Gitter, Anthony Rhulen, Dan Fried
Distributor: Lions Gate Films

The tragedies of Shakespeare, however great they might be, don’t always ring true. Perhaps, we are too removed from the play’s period to comprehend the full scope of a tragedy. Rarely do we truly feel the fear or empathy. However, in “O” we do. Aristotle wrote that a real tragedy evokes a catharsis. He defined a catharsis as a combination of empathy and fear. We sympathize with the characters and are afraid because we could see ourselves or someone we know in their predicament. This is one of the best films of the summer and like “A.I.”, it is a philosophical tearjerker. We want to cry because the world is sometimes such a terrible place.

Mekhi Phifer in “O”

The film “O” is based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Othello”. But whereas Shakespeare’s “Othello” was a war story set in Venice, “O” is set in an academic setting. In “O”, Odin James (Meki Phifer) is a champion high school basketball player, beloved by the beautiful and popular Desi (Julia Stiles) and best friend—he thinks—of Hugo (Josh Hartnett.) The transfer to the high school setting works admirably for modern day audiences. Where else would hormonal rage, jealousy and social hierarchy work to create such a tragedy? In Shakespeare’s play, the villainous Iago admits he doesn’t quite know why he dislikes Othello. In one scene he says rumors are around that Othello cuckolded him. In another, he mentions his jealousy. It is possible that Iago was racist. After all, Shakespeare, also wrote that great speech against anti-semitism in “The Merchant of Venice”. But, in Elizabethan times, was there a word for the kind of hatred, jealousy, discomfort and fear that we all have come to call racism?

Jealousy and racism share a common trait. They are pumped up by a perverse sense of righteous indignation. We feel something has been taken from us and we feel a dislike for something we perceive as unfair. Both the jealous and the racist believe that life has wrongly given something to someone else. The question is: does the jealousy and fear come before the racism or do all these evils arrive hand in hand? On the whole, racists and jealous persons do a great deal of hating. Their actions might be a smoldering hateful look which may or may not hurt its recipient. But that’s about all. In Hugo’s case, his jealousy spurs him to action. Hugo yields to temptation, and not just to an angry look. Hugo is methodical, subtle, and downright sneaky.

In Shakespeare’s play—and in this film—everyone has lost something. The characters want honor, respect, daughter, father, lover. Everyone is concerned with losing something/someone and wanting it back. Only Hugo, however, does something about it. In this adaptation, Hugo is jealous of Odin James (O.J.?) because of his dad’s attentions. We dislike Hugo’s plotting and scheming and yet—like many of the high school shooters of the recent years—he is not someone the audience truly dislikes. We keep feeling that if only his dad, Duke (Martin Sheen), the win-oriented coach, would honor, respect and cherish the kid just a little bit more, then the tragedy would be averted. But that is not to be. Hugo has lost his bearings and it is a trifle too late for any attentions from Duke to bring him back.

Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles and Andrew Keegan in “O”
The film is about the tensions in American high schools. Racism, grades, hormones all play into the youth culture. Star athletes get away with a lot. Some people might even say that star black athletes get away with a lot. Like Othello, Odin is also black. Desi is white. No one makes a big deal about this. It isn’t necessary. Except for the imagery of the white doves and the black hawk, there is an undercurrent of subtle racism in the film. The characters are politically correct. But that doesn’t make them honest. No one comes out and shows their racism unless they feel anger or camaraderie with some other character. This is America where everyone is trying his/her best to behave himself. Interestingly, the characters are human and are neither all good or all bad. That is, there are no characters whose actions are all black or all white. All the athletes are a privileged set who are quite capable of treating high school losers badly.

Perhaps kings and princes and warrior-soldiers are too above us for us to truly relate to their quandaries. After all, who can understand the grievance of a seminarian prince whose mother has married his uncle? Without a belief in the divine right of kings, the precepts in Leviticus against marrying one’s brother’s wife, the back history of a king who did just that and regretted it …and a belief that demons walk the hurt with the intent to deceive innocent God-fearing people, “Hamlet” is merely the story of another confused angry person. The tragedy of school killings like the one at Columbine High School, raging youthful testosterone, the history of American and European racism and the cruel hierarchy of high school all have contributed to a tragic and relevant updating of “Othello”. Anyone who remembers sitting on the sidelines while other people were honored will feel for the villain Hugo. Anyone who knows that teenagers are ruled by their hormones will understand how a tragedy could happen. The film is wonderfully real. The language is offensive (Kids-in-Mind report 61 F-words… 4 religious profanities, 3 religious exclamations), but it is also real. Unfortunately, this is how most teenagers, white or black, speak.

Christians will understand the nature of temptation and man’s attempt to set matters right by doing the wrong thing. Christian parents will understand how dangerous those teenage years truly are. There are sex scenes (of course) including an interracial couple. it’s sex outside of marriage that’s wrong here, not the racial mix (see our “Racial Issues” section). The screenwriter, Brad Kaaya is not a known name. After this film he will definitely be known. Technically, this is one of the best films of the summer and one of the better Shakespearean adaptations. But be cautious—there is plenty of potentially offensive content.


Viewer Comments
Negative—The film was right on the money with Shakespeare’s play. The story line was well laid out, the actors portrayed their characters remarkably well. And yet, I would not recommend this movie. Disregard the curse words, those are almost common place, ignore the fact that two of the main characters are quite obviously sleeping together, also routine. The humdinger for this film was the grotesque sex scene, that lasted approx. ten minutes… That one scene taints the rest of the film. It was definitely a disappointment. Why destroy what would have been a perfectly riveting piece of work?
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 4]
—Anon., age 19
Positive—…I thought this was an amazing movie, one that deserves best picture consideration. …If you don’t like to see violence and sex, then read about the movie before going… The news of this movie being delayed for years due to school shootings was a good indication of what was continued. That means that everyone who walked out or was offended, do some homework before you go… when you pay for the movie you show support, the same amount if you walk out half way or not [unless you get a refund].
My Ratings: [5]
—Sean, age 22
O is a direct take-off of Shakespeare’s Othello. It is definitely not a feel good movie, rather, it leaves you feeling quite depressed and wondering as to the state of the world. The language is very offensive and there are many sexual references with one extremely offensive sex scene. If I could go back, hands down, I would not have seen it. In my opinion it was a waste of money and time and honestly, I wish we had walked out. Not a movie to see.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 2½]
—Anon., age 25
I have seen O twice in the last three days, I just can’t get over how real it is, as a recent high school graduate, this film was very real to me, the almost perfect rewrite of Shakespeare was something I have been waiting for and this was it. Shakespeare was a vulgar author and this film was no different…
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 5]
—Adam A., age 18
This was a very powerful and interesting movie! I really enjoyed it and I think that anyone one that is mature (about 15 and over) would really enjoy this movie. There are a lot of movies out there that are bad, and this isn’t one of them. Josh Hartnett does an excellent job portraying Hugo, and Stiles and Pheifer do a good job too. Overall, this movie IS worth seeing.
My Ratings: [Average / 4½]
—Jodi Jacobs, age 23
This movie was very good. I loved it so much. I would recommend it to anyone to see that is into seeing good powerful movies. Josh Hartnett did an excellent acting job, while Julia Stiles and Mr. Pheifer were good.
My Ratings: [4½]
—Mary Janson, age 23
This was a very good movie, with a great plot. There was some offensive stuff though.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 4]
—Danny, age 22
…language is extremely harsh, including the n-word and a homophobic epithet and very harsh rap lyrics on the soundtrack…
—Nell Minow, MovieMom
…Although “O” is certainly an interesting experiment in the grand tradition of tinkering with Shakespeare, when those closing credits roll, this experiment fails to measure up…
—Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire
…packed with sex, violence and bad language…
—Phil Villareal, Arizona Daily Star