Movies for the Resistance: O

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles, Rain Phoenix, John Heard and Martin Sheen
Directed by: Tim Blake Nelson
Running time: 95 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 2001


Puerto Rico sits underwater and Donald Trump takes aim at NFL players for taking a knee during the national anthem. Because apparently helping brown people comes second to making sure black people know their place.

The reasons for Colin Kaepernick’s now watershed decision to protest violence against blacks in America have been largely lost in the wake of our Divider in Chief’s response, but the racial overtones of Trump’s attack have once more laid bare the implicit inequalities that have festered and seethed for centuries. Those in Trump’s corner – those who believe that the actions of NFL players this past Sunday were disrespectful to the flag – usually cite the athlete’s salaries as reason for them to keep silent. “They make millions of dollars,” the argument goes. “They’re the embodiment of the American dream!” The easy response to that is “they’re using their success to draw attention to people that the system is failing,” but it goes deeper than that. It’s a statement on race, and the way our culture treats non-whites. I say this as a white man with all the privileges that implies, but the principle remains unchanged, and it’s been with us for a very long time.

Case in point: William Shakespeare’s Othello, presenting a successful black man in a white culture who is accepted only because they deem him exceptionally useful. His jealousy undoes him, but that jealousy is fueled by a society that constantly reminds him of his place. It keeps the play pertinent – another reminder of our inability as a species to get over this shit – but rarely more so for this moment than it did with Tim Blake Nelson’s O, a modern updating of the story that cuts to the heart of the NFL protests this past Sunday.

Nelson shifts the story to a modern-day high school: all white with just a single black student in attendance. Odin “O” James (Mekhi Phifer) seemingly leads a charmed life as the beloved star of the basketball team, on the short track to NCAA stardom and with a fantastic (white) girlfriend in Desi Brable (Julia Stiles). He’s got the world on a string, and thus fails to notice the green-eyed glares of his best friend Hugo (Josh Hartnett), who simmers over O’s accolades and quietly schemes to get even. As you may suspect, it gets bloody.

The beats follow Shakespeare quite sharply, but Nelson provides modern dialogue and context that link its message directly to the here and now. Placing it in the context of adolescence heightens the emotions – the characters here feel their injuries more plainly, and are more vulnerable to hormones and easy rage – but never damages the underlying truth.

It starts with O himself, painfully aware of his status and the no-win scenario it embodies. He’s not where he is because he’s a physics genius or a computer wiz. He didn’t end up in an exclusive school because of his poetry or painting talents. They didn’t put a black man in a sea of white faces because of his debating skills or academic decathlon prowess. He’s here to put basketball trophies in their case. Period. Full stop.  His value and worth begin and end with what happens on the courts. And for some reason, that eats at him.

It gets worse when Hugo manifests the resentment that O senses from every corner of his environment. Hugo is the son of the coach (Martin Sheen), and it’s inferred that he traveled a much smoother road than O to get here. His dad is connected, so he didn’t have to fight for a scholarship. He gets a spot on the team as a matter of course and he’s pretty good too. But O is better. O gets the press. O has the pretty girl and the MVP award. And that eats at him too: his demons are bigger and stronger despite being fueled by objectively smaller pains.

O’s jealousy – and Othello’s before him – thus becomes less a personal flaw than something projected and exacerbated by the culture around him. Society tells the black man, “this is the only way you can succeed, and your chances of doing so are astronomical.” Then he makes it – jumps through the hoops, never makes a mistake and reaches that coveted spot against all odds – and in the wake of his success the tone becomes “you’d better be grateful for this.”

Those are the only options in the rigged game. Fail… or succeed and become the target of seething envy. Stumble… or stand and be resented for “having it all.” Financial success, accolades, a prominent spot in the social pecking order… all of it rendered hollow by the reality that it can vanish at any time. Climb too high, enjoy the good life too much, speak out against something that troubles you, and it’s back to the gutter for you.

O is ultimately responsible for his deeds, of course, just as Othello was before him. But the villain of the piece remains clear, as does the larger ills that Hugo (and Iago) represent. Hugo channels and projects it onto the obvious target, who ultimately buckles beneath the weight of it. We’re confronted with those ills yet again, as we are with the reality that they never ended for far too many of us. At the heart of race relations in the U.S. lies a troubling truth, one Donald Trump (to our national shame) rode all the way to the White House. You don’t have to help a white man find a better job. You only have to convince him that a black man is cutting in line.

And now, as players and indeed entire teams exercise their right to protest that injustice, we listen to the same complaints from the same white mouths yet again. Why can’t they just play football? Why can’t they be grateful for what they have? Why do they have to disrespect the flag? Why can’t they stop grandstanding? (That last one, delivered unironically from a boda fide Trump supporter, is the most cutting proof of racial double standards you’ll ever see).

Beneath it all, like a toxic circuit, runs the same terrible drumbeat: “Who does that n****r think he is?”

We sensed it for 8 years under Barack Obama, a president who Trump now tries to erase from history. We felt it this weekend in the anger of NFL fans, who were fine with the league’s countless ethical monstrosities over the years but only now decide that a principle is at stake. But it’s been with us for far longer than that: far back enough that a 17th-century playwright created a masterpiece to comment on it.

It’s awful. It’s monstrous. It’s beneath us as human beings. And it’s never going to change until we decide to change it.


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