review by Cynthia Fuchs, 31 August
school basketball is most often the province of uplifting films, in
which talented players struggle with social difficulties, supportive
coaches, and romantic dilemmas. O offers as object lesson the doomed
romance between a basketball player, O (Mekhi Phifer) and Desi
(Julia Stiles), and his difficulties fitting into an all-white high
school. Though it is similar to other "high school films,"
it is also radically different: given that it is, essentially,
Othello set in high school, the uplift is pretty much nonexistent.
That's not to say that there aren't lessons to be learned here, but
they are more tragic than typical.
all that, the movie does feature scenes and ideas that are sadly
familiar, not only to those who are in or have been in high school,
but also to TV viewers who have seen school shooting
"aftermaths" (the fact that this phrase has entered the
general lexicon is depressing in itself). As many viewers know by
now, Tim Blake Nelson's O had a roundabout route to movie theaters.
Originally set to be released in 1999, it was shelved by Miramax
following the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20 (and
indeed, one scene at the end of O shows anonymous students mourning
their friends' bloody deaths, in shots that mimic the TV images
we've seen too often following shootings at high schools and office
buildings). The public representation of the studio's anxiety was,
no surprise, that Miramax didn't want to seem to "incite"
or otherwise appear to "condone" high school violence,
though, as the director and actors have noted, O is unlikely to do
any such thing, since it is a very careful consideration of and
caution against just such horrors, an exploration of how they might
happen and how they affect their many victims.
Lions Gate has stepped up to release the movie, as it did last year
with Miramax's other recent hot potato, Kevin Smith's Dogma. Viewers
can judge the movie, however belatedly. Written by Brad Kaaya and
directed by Nelson (best known at this point for his starring role
in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), O focuses on the travails of the
lone black basketballer at an all-white prep school in Charleston,
South Carolina. Odin, known as O, is charming and sexy, and a
dazzling ballplayer. Not only is he winning awards from the school
and lavish praise from the coach (Martin Sheen), he's also dating
Desi, lovely daughter of the headmaster (John Heard). While O and
Desi know they look fabulous together (check them at the club, on
display for their fellow students and enjoying it), and are clearly
fond of one another, they're also quite aware of their interracial
status. During one interlude, Odin says he wants to lie down
together because "I just like the feel of your skin next to
mine." But as soon as they're up-close, they begin a vaguely
tense, anxiously jokey exchange concerning the distinction between
his "player skills" and his role as "black buck"
dressed up to play "house nigger" at the school where he's
beloved for his athletic brilliance but also feels alienated.
is easily the film's most cogent insight, which it hits hard and
insistently --the ways that longstanding cultural anxieties about
race in the U.S. continue to affect young people's individual and
community relationships, just as it affects adults. While the
violent outcome is part of O's given Shakespearean fabric, its
particular treatment of the motivation for the violence, and the
violence itself (especially O's against Desi) are appropriately
difficult to watch. This is in part a function of the very good
performances by all involved, and the editing exertions made to fit
this complicated story into a feature-length running time. For all
his on-court polish and experience dealing with racism, Odin is
still a teenager.
uncertainty about who he is or will be is aggravated by goading from
his jealous friend and teammate, the coach's son Hugo (Josh
Hartnett). The boys' friendship is competitive precisely because of
the way they are treated by adults: Iago's evil is translated into a
young man's desire for his dad's affection. Moreover, the movie
makes too much of Hugo's problems awkwardly literal: in seeking his
father's attention off the court, he's taken to enhancing his
performance on the court, with steroid injections from a local
dealer (perhaps predictably, this is the only other black character
with a speaking part). These elements -- the unhappy children of
authority figures; the competing boys; the beautiful, naive girl --
will be familiar to anyone who's seen a typical romantic comedy set
in high school (say, 10 Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming
of the Shrew, or even Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, not a comedy and
not set in high school, but both films star Stiles). And as in these
other films, unease over physicality -- a combination of sex and
sports -- leads the kids to act on their complicated desires, both
spontaneously and in painfully calculated ways. But in O, the
consequences expose preexisting social tensions that shape the kids'
experiences, tensions that are, of course, also economic, racial,
political, and above all, mediated, in television and movies and
magazines. There's no escape.
there may be a possibility for awareness and support from adults.
Nelson has written in the New York Times that he wanted also to
represent the ways that "kids are 'older' at a younger age
now." Certainly, the adult inclination to "protect"
kids from troublesome, provocative imagery and ideas -- exemplified
by Miramax's "rationale" for not releasing O -- is as
tenuous and impossible to achieve as it is understandable.
"Kids" have demanding and sometimes frightening lives now,
for all the "prosperity" so many of them supposedly enjoy.
Their day-to-day decisions are stressful, their exposure to and
comprehension of multiple choices (many not available to them, which
makes for frustration) is sometimes overwhelming. Despite pundits'
chatter about the "short attention spans" of children and
teens, it is more often the case that kids experience and process
information in faster and more complex ways than their elders: it's
the nature of the world in which they must survive.
the most part (save for some cheesy "metaphorical"
business where Hugo imagines himself as the hawk that is his team's
mascot, which is just silly), O respects its young characters and
potential viewers. Still, many high schoolers -- the very folks
depicted in the film -- will not be allowed to see it in theaters
(they will no doubt find ways to see it, and some might even wait
until it comes to video and/or TV; recall what has happened with
Kids, Cruel Intentions, or even American Pie). Seeing characters of
their own age struggling with complex social pressures and emotional
traumas similar to what they see in movies featuring so-called adult
characters may be upsetting, but it will not be surprising. At the
same time, O is apparently and already (before its release) not
serving as a wholly "correct" educational vehicle.
Nelson's New York Times piece seems intended as an introduction to
the movie and explanation of what the director has in mind. Though
he notes his initial concern about setting the film in "the
South," as a location liable to remind viewers of clichés
about racism, he then expresses surprise, that "The facts, as
concern the story's racial elements, are far more intriguing than
the fiction. One irony of American hip-hop culture is that white
suburban kids strive to emulate the inner city tastes in dress and
manner of speech that are described in rap music or depicted in its
"irony" works a few ways, but suffice it to say that the
distinctions between kids' tastes and styles (as promulgated by
media) have been blurred for a long time. But, as most kids know,
the assimilation of styles doesn't always lead to understanding and
empathy. While Nelson says he was happily surprised that the South
Carolinian setting could be handled in a subtler, less stereotypical
way than it might have been some years ago, the fact remains that
race and racism continue to inflect "meanings" of class,
generation, and gender, however subtly. While Odin and Desi's
relationship might be perfectly "fine" on its face, it
raises "issues" that the kids in the film don't
necessarily "expect." These are first articulated by
Desi's father (who presumes O is a sexual predator), and are
elaborated on by Hugo's increasingly hysterical drive to punish O
for what he perceives as his friend's many
this much is visible in the movie, it also turns out that consumers
aren't always ideal students, and bring their own ideas to what they
see, reshaping "product" according to their own needs.
This seems to have happened in the case of O: the film's website
features a "Message Board" (this is unconventional in
itself, as most films and studios don't ask for "feedback"
or "discussion," but instead present themselves as
commodities and bottom-liners before anything else). But the Board
has been closed down, with this "message" on the site:
"Unfortunately, some of the messages that have been posted in
the past month have begun to threaten the purpose of inspiring
meaningful conversation. Lions Gate does not condone inflammatory
statements of hatred and flagrant disrespect for those involved in
making and promoting the film. We apologize for any inconvenience
this may have caused."
disclaimer suggests a couple of things: one, while Lions Gate wants
only "meaningful conversation," it's not clear who defines
what's "meaningful"; and two, the movie (or the idea of
it) has evidently evoked some exchange that is not
"meaningful," discussion that is perhaps even vitriolic.
But it also suggests that the "conversation" on race is as
pressing as ever.
Tim Blake Nelson
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult