The first I heard of the “incident” was a student’s twit that sounded concerning.
3 weeks ago, my prof. played a blackface video without any warning or discussion. In the weeks since, my university has struggled to respond. (The prof. has tenured.) I write this piece because it’s beyond time for this story to be in the public sphere.
The student wrote of his shock and disgust, feigning numbness due to his lack of shock given the pervasive racism of his university. That school was the University of Michigan. The professor who showed this “blackface video” was Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, a highly accomplished composer, conductor and pianist, whose music has been featured by prestigious groups including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra and a survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
But the film? It was Sir Laurence Olivier playing Shakespeare’s Othello.
On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface.
“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”
Even worse, this trauma happened without warning.
According to Cook, the students were given no warning or contextualization prior to the viewing.
And, of course, if the students feign outrage, so too must the academics who desperately desire their adoration.
In an email to The Daily, Evan Chambers, professor of composition, wrote about the importance of properly preparing students for possible instances of racism in film.
“To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions,” Chambers wrote. “We need to acknowledge that as a community.”
Another professor, Kristin Kuster, sought to make sure that Sheng, who had received many awards and honors before, never got another for this “racist act.”
A @umichsmtd professor, @KristinKuster, seems hell-bent on taking down her colleague, Bright Sheng, by tagging the Pulitzer Prize committee, MacArthur foundation, and others about a complaint that Sheng showed Olivier as Othello in his class. Does that seem "collegial" to you? pic.twitter.com/66rrlAczkM
— japecake (@japecake) October 5, 2021
Sheng apologized, as is obligatory in Ann Arbor, to no avail. Elie Mystal once explained that there is no excuse, ever, for blackface, Gov. Ralph Northam notwithstanding. But Sheng’s crime wasn’t wearing blackface, but showing an iconic Shakespearean actor in an iconic movie wearing blackface while playing a Moor.
As the Michigan Daily took pains to note, one New York Times reviewer in 1966 found Olivier’s makeup offensive at the time. It makes no mention of the thousand other reviews of the movie, lauded as perhaps the greatest performance of Othello on film. The sort of film one might show in a college class in anticipation of Giuseppe Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play into an opera.
Sheng’s apology, however, failed to assuage the outrage.
On Sept. 16, Sheng sent out a formal apology to the department. He wrote that after doing more research into the issue, he realized the true extent to which racism impacts American culture, adding that he failed to recognize the racist connotation of blackface makeup.
“In a classroom, I am a teacher representing the university and I should have thought of this more diligently and fundamentally; I apologize that this action was offensive and has made you angry,” Sheng wrote. “It also has made me lost (sic) your trust.”
However, the apology has been another source of controversy among students. Students have taken particular issue with the section of the letter where Sheng lists multiple examples of how he has worked with people of color in the past.
The ever-vigilant frosh Cook was unimpressed.
Cook told The Daily she felt the letter was shallow. By listing out all of his contributions to people of color, he failed to understand the gravity of his actions, Cook said.
“He could have taken responsibility for his actions and realized that this was harmful to some of his students that are within his class,” Cook said. “Instead, he tried to make excuses. Instead of just apologizing for it, he tried to downplay the fact that the entire situation happened in the first place.”
And the empathetic grad students tried to help the deeply traumatized undergrads.
“It was sort of a protective reaction from the grad students, like ‘what can we do to help the undergraduates? What do they need?’” the graduate student said. “Clearly they’re not going to be in a room with (Sheng) anytime soon.”
“I feel like the thing that we all actually needed (was) a true and honest and genuine understanding that he did something wrong, not just (him) trying to defend himself,” the graduate student said. “I feel like there’s still a lack of trust there because none of us think he is actually sorry.”
All because Sheng played Othello starring Laurence Olivier for his class, the minor detail that Sammy Sussman neglected to include in his twit of outrage because the entirety of this “racist” incident was so utterly absurd. However will these students survive the trauma they’ve manufactured?