Choosing a movie wrong can have devastating consequences in America. Musician Bright Sheng, 65, has been forced to drop out of his composition seminar at the University of Michigan after his students reacted to his decision to put the film version of the play in class. Othello starring in 1965 by the British actor Laurence Olivier, in which the interpreter acts with his face painted brown, an outdated practice known as blackface, considered racist in this country.
The composer, director and famous pianist apologized for playing in class a version of Shakespeare’s drama that “discriminates and degrades” people of African descent and their culture. To defend himself, he listed several ethnic minority artists that he has hired throughout his career. It was worse. The first-year students called the letter “incendiary” and are demanding his dismissal.
Sheng has been a senior lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance for a quarter of a century. This fall he gave a seminar to “analyze Othello, from Shakespeare to Verdi.” Since he screened the film in the first class, he has not been in the classroom again. “Times have changed and I made a mistake showing it. It was insensitive on my part ”, the professor points out to this newspaper. He explains that he chose the 1965 version for being one of the most faithful to Shakespeare and adds that in the world of opera the cross-casting (Choosing an actor without the gender or ethnicity coinciding with the role to be played) is a custom that dates back to the origin of the theater.
“I thought that both the play and the opera portrayed Othello as a hero who is a victim of white people” and that it could teach something useful about “universal human misbehaviors and about problems such as slander or false accusations”, he points out. the composer. Many point to him as a new victim of political correctness and art revisionism. Asked if he sees himself as affected by the culture of cancellation, he responds: “Before this incident, I had never heard of the term. I have no comment on that ”.
Months after the Othello of Laurence Olivier hit theaters, Bright Sheng, then 11, saw in Shanghai how the Red Guards took the piano from his mother, the woman who taught him to play. Despite the repression of the Cultural Revolution, he became one of the great composers of his generation. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the Geniuses Fellowship, and has been a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for music. His compositions have been heard from Beijing, at the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games, to the White House. “Bright Sheng survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but he may not survive a couple of complaining Michigan students shown a film version of Othello”Tweeted novelist Christian Schneider.
Sammy Sussman, a fourth-year classical music student, was one of the students who resented having to see the Othello of Olivier without any “warning or discussion ”prior. This film was already criticized in the sixties for hurting sensibilities and stereotyping the black community. Sussman wrote to the director of the faculty, who recommended that he speak with Professor Sheng before accusing him, as he believed that a professor with his experience “had educational reasons to share this famous interpretation of Othello,” according to the student on his blog. . The young man affirms that the solution of discussing the subject was not a feasible option “without fear of professional repercussions”.
At the end of the class, some students made Sheng see their rejection of the film and he sent an apology to all the students “in 108 minutes”. Then he sent another message informing that he was canceling the project on Othello and that he would present a new topic for the seminar. “I did more research and learned about the subject and realized that the depth of racism was, and continues to be, a dangerous part of American culture,” the letter read. Several students went to the dean of the faculty, Dean Gier. He contacted the Office of Equity and Civil Rights of the University to investigate what happened. “East [incidente] It has been painful and unsettling for the students in the class, ”Gier wrote in an email addressed to the students.
Seeing that the spirits did not subside with the initial apologies, the professor wrote to his students that throughout his teaching career he had had many African-American students and that he maintains contact with them. Also, that he has hired several black artists in his career. The defense fired up his student body even more. “It implies that many of them have achieved success in their careers because of him,” said more than 40 undergraduate, graduate and faculty composition students. Following that letter, Sheng officially ceased to be a professor at the Shakespearean seminary.
“Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our university’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion,” explained Kim Broekhuizen, a spokesperson for the faculty, who clarified that the composer was not fired. , but he himself decided, together with Gier, “to step aside.” Sheng continues to offer private classes and is scheduled to teach a course in winter, but is no longer teaching that seminar. The teacher change “will allow a positive learning environment” so that students can focus on their “growth as songwriters,” argued the dean.
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