It might come as a shock how recently white actors have appeared in blackface as Othello. Anthony Hopkins played the "Moor of Venice" for the BBC in 1981, for example, and it was not until 1995 that a major a motion picture starred a Black actor (Laurence Fishburne) in the role. Ira Eldridge had performed the part in the 19th century, and Paul Robeson played Othello on stage to much acclaim in the in the 1930s and 40s. White actors have played Othello without blackface: Patrick Stewart, for example, was the only white actor in otherwise all-Black cast in a race-reversed 1997 stage production. But there is a long list of great actors who have donned blackface for the part on stage and screen: Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Hopkins, and so on. Given this intrinsic cringe-worthiness, it can be difficult to assess the relative virtue of the different productions of Othello prior to, say, 1990. So take the following with a grain of salt; many of these versions will strike modern viewers as distasteful, at best, if not downright offensive. But we have tried to make some value judgments based on the merits of particular performances, bearing in mind that they represent relics of a bygone era.
Similar to his money-strapped Macbeth, Welles strung together the budget for Othello from catch-as-catch-can acting gigs (including The Third Man), which meant filming over three years in a variety of locations (mainly Morocco and Italy) with three different actresses playing Desdmona! Out of these strapped circumstances Welles’s unflagging visual genius managed to conjure an a gorgeous dreamscape. His performance is dignified and full of pathos; his sonorous voice magnifies the eloquence of a character who claims to be “rude of speech.” Micheál MacLiammóir is a cold and humorless Iago, but effective (check out his entertaining and illuminating behind-the-scenes account of making the film, the aptly titled Put Money in Thy Purse). Whatever its flaws, we're lucky to have Othello at all: the original negatives were believed to be lost, but once found were digitally remastered with a new audio-track and musical score. The result is bracing cinematic poem; a testament to Welles’s genius both in front of and behind the camera.
When the Mighty fall, they fall hard. Olivier is the iconic Shakespearean actor of the 20th century, and many accounted his Othello a triumph. Preeminent film critic, Pauline Kael, asked “what Negro actor at this stage in the world’s history could dare bring to the role the effrontery that Olivier does, and which Negro actor could give it this reading? I saw Paul Robeson and he was not black as Olivier is.” I don't think it's hollow virtue signaling to find that comment wince-inducing, especially since the production -- filmed in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights movement! – survives as a painfully dated document of grotesque stereotyping: oily Olivier rolls his eyes and ‘r’s, and at one point, in a fit of jealous rage, tears the Christian crucifix from around his neck and prostrates himself like a Muslim praying towards Mecca. The worthy supporting cast (Frank Finlay, Maggie Smith, and a very young Derek Jacobi) are swallowed in the vortex of Olivier's preening self-indulgence, which borders at times on self-parody. We love Olivier at Bardolatry and can forgive a multitude of sins, but do yourself a favor and give this one a pass.
Anthony Hopkins once compared acting Shakespeare to climbing Mount Everest, adding, "I don't like to fall in public places." He may have had in mind his slightly unhinged portrayal of Othello in this BBC production, part of the monumental series of Shakespeare adaptations released in the early 80's. This version interprets the idea of "the Moor" somewhat loosely, and Hopkins makes no effort (as far as I can tell) to evoke a specific race or ethnicity, and he is in good voice with his beautiful Welsh baritone. But one can't help but wish the BBC had gone with the original choice for Othello -- James Earl Jones -- before electing to cast only British actors (in the process implying that there were no Black British actors capable in 1981 of taking on the part). Bob Hoskins is a cagey, wiley Iago; his accent adds a tinge of class resentment to his hatred of Othello, and his scenes together with Hopkins have real tension and chemistry.
Although little more than a filmed stage production, this Othello is the most moving and dramatic version of the play available. Shakespeare’s characters come alive as flesh-and-blood beings, not marble monuments. Imogen Stubbs is a youthful and excitable Desdemona; she is old enough to love Othello with unblemished affection, but young enough to be a little naïve about it. Stubbs gives a heartbreaking performance, full of vitality and pathos, and is easily the best Desdemona I’ve seen. Willard White is an Othello worthy of Desdemona’s love. His booming voice commands attention and respect, yet is expressive enough to convey Othello’s lyrical quality (White’s training as an opera singer no doubt aided his sense of Shakespeare’s musicality). The ever-masterful Ian Mckellen strips Iago of his superficial attractiveness, revealing the ulcerous hatred and pathological need for control beneath the charming and professional surface. It is a brilliant and daring interpretation of a character who can be seductive and beguiling. This is a great production of a profoundly troubling play; it’s the most satisfying Othello I’ve seen, and one of the very best filmed productions of a Shakespeare work.
This version of Othello has historical importance as the first timea Black South African actor played the role in apartheid South Africa. Based on an acclaimed 1987 stage production, the filmed adaptation did more than provoke controversy and break new ground. It is a fine production in its own right, with Tony award winning actor John Kani bringing eloquence and passion to the title role. Directed by celebrated RSC actor Janet Suzman , the production is arguably as femininist in its intentions as racially aware: Desdemona is no lily-white ingenue, she is a strong and passionate woman. The stage and screen versions testify to the enduring power of Shakespeare's complex play; the Bard's cultural authority arguably allowed Suzman & co. to smuggle in an anti-apartheid message under the guise of a canonical classic.
In the mid 1990's, the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial made a 400-year old play about a prominent Black man murdering his white wife suddenly topical. As a film, Othello holds up as a handsome and accessible, if somewhat lackluster, adaptation. The sets, costumes and cinematography are first-rate. Laurence Fishburne brings command and gravitas to a difficult role, convincingly carrying us from the heights of Othello’s love for Desdemona to the depths of his jealousy and despair. Kenneth Branagh delivers an uncharacteristically subdued, even sullen performance as Iago, somewhat mystifying given the part calls for more of Branagh’s manic charm. The scenes between Fishburne and Branagh are the best in the film, crackling with intensity. The supporting cast is strong: Nathaniel Parker is a proud and sensitive Cassio; Anna Patrick is memorable as a flinty, fiercely loyal Emilia. This is a good introduction to the play for newcomers, but we would recommend the 1989 adaptation starring Willard White and Ian McKellen as the overall superior version.
Following the success of Baz Luhrmann's R + J (1996) and Ten Things I Hate About You, O revamped Othello as a high-school soap opera: all roiling hormones and homicidal jealousy. It also traded on the recent O.J. Simpson notoriety, giving its protagonist, Odin James, the same initials, and making him a star athlete instead of celebrated general. But the film--which features a school rampage -- ran into the headwinds of the 1999 Columbine mass shooting, which delayed the release of the film by almost two years. O follows the original plot pretty closely, renaming Desdemona "Desi" and Iago "Hugo", but ultimately begs the question of what remains of Shakespeare (who "borrowed" his own plots quite liberally) when the poetry is gone. What remains in this case are three strong lead performances: Julia Stiles as Desi, Josh Hartnett as Hugo, and Mekhi Phifer as Odin. For those who only know Hartnett as a hollow hunk, this performance hinted at profounder depths than his later career would allow.