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O

Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Cast: Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett, Rain Phoenix

(Lions Gate; 2001)

Transgressions

High 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.


That said, 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” 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.


Now, 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. The movie can be judged by viewers, however belatedly.


Written by Brad Kaaya and directed by Tim Blake 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, 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.


This 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 is occasionally—and 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, and his uncertainty 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 and also starring 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.


Nelson has written in the 26 August 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.


For 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 the American Pies). 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 reportedly not serving as a wholly “correct” educational vehicle. Nelson’s New York Times piece seems intended as something of an introduction 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 cliches 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 videos.”


This “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 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 “transgressions.”


If 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.”


This 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.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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