TBT: Othello (1995)

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When you think of the title character of Shakespeare’s play Othello, it seems obvious that a he’s a non-white person. He is, after all “the Moor of Venice,” and in 16th-century England, “moor” could have meant anything from “swarthy person” to a man from Africa or Asia.  In the 19th century, Othello was often played in Arabic costume. Does all this mean Othello must always be played by a person of color? Not necessarily, but the absence of a non-white Othello on film until 1995 is striking. That’s when the first major movie studio version was made starring an African-American actor, Laurence Fishburne, as Shakespeare’s moor.

Othello (1995)

To understand how groundbreaking this was, compare with the previous well-known film versions of Othello. In 1952, Orson Welles directed and starred in an award-winning but over-complicated Othello where he physically loomed over Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona. Welles seemed to go with the standard moor-as-Arab trope.

Othello (1951), Orson Welles
Othello (1951), Orson Welles

It’s just the lighting that makes Welles look extra-swarthy here; I can’t find evidence that he added makeup to look darker.

Somewhat disturbing, to me at least, is 1965’s Othello starring Laurence Olivier in blackface. Yes, actual blackface in 1965. Do not adjust your set. Even the New York Times‘ 1965 review compared Olivier’s Othello negatively to “an American minstrel show,” so at least someone saw it as backwards for the period. Yet still, this movie was nominated for four acting Oscars that year, including for Olivier. *shakes head*

Othello (1965), Laurence Olivier

According to the New York Times, “he caps his shiny blackface with a wig of kinky black hair and he has the insides of his lips smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red.” Yeah, Olivier really went for it.

Othello (1965), Laurence Olivier

Frank Finlay as Iago, Maggie Smith as Desdemona

Othello (1965), Laurence Olivier

I’m also disturbed by a white man in blackface wearing this giant chain-like necklace. The British had bondage slave trade in their past too.

 

So finally, in the ’90s, we see Othello played by someone who might have an intrinsic sense of what othering and social isolation is about. Laurence Fishburne’s performance smolders first with passion for Desdemona (Irène Jacob) and then with jealousy stoked by Iago (Kenneth Branagh). He’s a beautifully barely controlled flame. Branagh’s Iago is naturally more of the scenery-chewer, as he does most of the talking and that’s what Ken’s good at. They’re a great pairing in this movie.

Othello (1995) Othello (1995) Othello (1995)

The setting is generally 16th-century Venice, with some scenes filmed in the medieval Orsini Castle in Italy. The costumes are vaguely renfaire-ish, with nothing spectacular but nothing atrocious either. Minimal hats or period hairstyling for anyone, and leather doublets for the men (but at least they don’t look too biker-jacket-y). Desdemona’s gowns tend to be very simple kirtles in pretty, period-esque fabrics with details (like sleeves and necklines) that lean towards either Florentine or German, depending on the outfit. But it all hangs together to create a theatrical world in which the play is set and provides a background for the Bard’s words.

Othello (1995) Othello (1995) Othello (1995) Othello (1995) Othello (1995) Othello (1995)

 

 

What do you think of Othello?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

23 Responses

  1. Liutgard

    Oh, I love this film! And you know what? Our VHS ate my copy- some time ago, come to think of it. I should buy a DVD so I can see it again.

    I thought the costumes were adequate- at least, there wasn’t anything that I found glaring. I though Fishburne was GOOD. Really good. Believable, even though I still thought that Othello was too easily led by Iago, you have to remember that Iago was one of his most trusted men. On the other hand, so was Cassio…

    Irene Jacob was ok, but didn’t really give me a strong opinion one way or another. But Kenneth Branagh- O. M. G. Best Iago I’ve ever seen. I adore Ken, but by the time 20 minutes had gone by, I hated him already. That man has mad skilz!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Agree 100%! Fishburne & Branagh are fantastic together — Iago has, what? 80% of the lines in this play, which works to Branagh’s advantage, of course, but the two of them created a depth of relationship between the characters.

      The movie is currently available on streaming, not free tho.

      Reply
    • Liutgard

      Something else I loved though- the other visual imagery. The way they handled the handkerchief. The lamps hanging around the bed.The visual contrast of Othello and Desdemona’s skin on the bed. The lighting, especially torchlit scenes. But most of all, the one that gave me shivers- the chess pieces.

      Reply
  2. Susan Pola

    I loved it. Mr Fishburne was a powerful Othello and the IMHO the most believable. His bête noire, Iago, was cunningly played by Ken. I wish it was on DVD.
    Costumes were meh, tho

    Reply
  3. Charity

    I literally couldn’t recognize Laurence Olivier in that first picture of him in the part; I think it broke my brain a little bit as I then considered what he might look like with different (darker) ancestry; but the lower two are very evidently him, in all his black-painted-white glory.

    I’m glad more authentic representations are getting out there now.

    Reply
    • mmcquown

      Given when Olivier’s film was done, it’s hardly a surprise.
      As to the play itself, it was also a product of its time because there was an active movement to get Great Elizabeth to deport the few thousand-odd “blackamoors” (i.e Africans) from England. A “Moor”might be an Arab, but a “blackamoor” was definitely a black African. There are some interesting representations in 16th & 17th century paintings of child servants dressed in Arabic costume.

      Reply
      • Charity

        There’s a book out there (I think just titled “Blackamoor”?) you can’t get for under $100 about famous black Moors in English history; including those whom Katharine of Aragon introduced into London society through her entourage.

        Reply
  4. drush76

    I had a brief encounter with Laurence Fishburne on the streets of L.A., either before production began on the film or afterward.

    Reply
  5. Kathleen Norvell

    Having seen many productions of “Othello,” with both black and white actors, as well as a “photo-negative” version with Patrick Stewart as Othello and the rest of the cast consisting of black actors, I really liked this version, although Frank Finlay is still my favorite on-screen Iago. Our well-regarded Shakespeare Theatre did a version last year with a Middle Eastern actor playing Othello. It was intense and I liked it a lot. Frankly, I would have killed to see James Earl Jones in the role 30 years ago.

    Reply
    • Saraquill

      The only version of Othello I’ve ever seen was “O.” Do not recommend; turning Othello and company into high school students makes the story nonsensical.

      Reply
  6. janette

    Urgh. That Olivier Othello. We were subjected to it at school. I hated it so much and have never forgiven Olivier. the Welles version looks just as offensive.I have never seen Othello as aggressive, just a good man driven mad by a psychopath. Nothing unusual there.
    I have often thought that it would be interesting to see a white Othello with an all non white cast, inverting the story as it were.I don’t think it has yet been done.
    I would really love to see the 90s Fishburne/Brannagh version. Must try hunting it down again.

    Reply
    • janette

      Ah hadn’t read comments when I posted. Apologies to Kathleen Norvell. There has been a “photo negative” version done on stage and with Patrick Stewart!! I do wish more stage plays ended up on screen for those of us who are theatre deprived.

      Reply
  7. Kathryn MacLennan

    Thank you for reminding me how sexy Laurence Fishburne is in this. It amazes me that this is the only film version of the play to cast a black actor (O doesn’t count). Like, could we get a couple more?

    Reply
  8. Alys Mackyntoich

    I would love to see David Oyelowo as Othello, although I don’t know who I’d cast as his Iago.

    Reply
  9. mmcquown

    It’s not a period piece but as an object of interest, Patrick McGoohan produced a film called “All Night Long” which was based on the play. The central character is a jazz musician. McGoohan plays the Iago character. Worth watching.
    As for the book, although an interesting subject, the price point is way beyond me these days. I wish I could find the original online article I had first seen. You can find more info at Original People.org/History of Blacks in Britain (but still not the original article I came across)

    Reply
  10. Liz

    Laurence Fishburne is my favorite Othello. He gave the character such depth, and you’re right–he and Ken played off each other perfectly in those roles.

    Reply
  11. emme ene

    People says: “more authentic representations are getting out there now” ….. WHAT ????

    Othelo is OLD (Fishburn in this film was 34 y.o.)

    Othelo is MOOR (MUSLIM – The hat is obligatory)

    Putting Othelo as a YOUNG man, MANLY and BLACK says the Yankee ideology, not Shakespeare….

    Reply

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