Unsafe in Michigan

A flap over a classroom viewing of "Othello" at the University of Michigan raises questions about cultural sensitivity, intolerance, and academic freedom

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The latest victim of campus “cancel culture” is Bright Sheng, a professor of music composition at the University of Michigan, who offended students by screening a 1965 film of Othello featuring Lawrence Olivier in blackface. Sheng’s apology did little to appease his accusers, and he has been removed from teaching the undergraduate composition seminar for the rest of the semester. (He is still teaching one-on-one lessons and doing research.) The fact that Sheng, a distinguished Chinese-American composer, two-time Pulitzer nominee and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, is a survivor of the Cultural Revolution—during which the Red Guards hauled away his family’s piano as a relic of bourgeois culture—gives this story an extra frisson of historical irony: From Cultural Revolution in China to a soft cultural revolution in America, without the state-sanctioned violence but with its own brand of coercive zealotry.

This is a disgraceful story and very much a manifestation of toxic “wokeness.” But before moving on to that, I want to offer a couple of caveats to many of the “antiwoke” reactions.

I’ve seen comments along the lines of “Oh my God, they were offended by Lawrence Olivier as Othello?”—with the implication that only hypersensitive philistines could see anything objectionable about the film.

I don’t know if the people making these comments have seen the film. But I have (long before the “Great Awokening”). And I cringed all the way through, both because of the racial stereotyping—which really is there!—and because of the over-the-top histrionics.

I’m pretty un-woke. I think, for what it’s worth, that the current discourse on blackface, “brownface,” etc. is absurdly overwrought and counterproductive. I basically agree with John McWhorter that there is (or should be) a difference between blackface as racist buffoonery (the classic “minstrelsy”) and skin-darkening. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign of moral progress that Jimmy Kimmel’s old Karl Malone bits, or Jimmy Fallon’s Chris Rock impersonation on Saturday Night Live skits from the ancient times of 2000, are now considered a cause for contrition. Or that a non-black person dressing up as Barack Obama or Beyoncé for Halloween and applying some dark makeup is now a ticket to unemployment. At the very least, I think we should be able to discuss these issues. The current moral panic over blackface is leading to absurdities like people getting attacked for having too much tan (also known as the grave crime of “brownfishing”) or freakouts over a photo of coal miners with coal-blackened faces.

Olivier’s version of Othello, though, really does verge on racial caricature, or maybe lurches all the way over that line. The New York Times critic wrote in 1966 (when the Times really wasn’t “woke”) that it “immediately impels the sensitive American viewer into a baffled and discomfited attitude,” not just because of the makeup (“shiny blackface with a wig of kinky black hair and … the insides of his lips smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red”) but because of the over-the-top mannerisms: the hip-swaying strut, the eye-rolling, the gleaming grins, etc. The result is the “the by-now outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotype,” getting progressively more over the top as Othello gets unhinged with jealousy.

It’s true that some critics loved it, but often in a peculiar way. I came across a glowing review from Pauline Kael, who thought Olivier’s performance was a bold portrayal of a “maimed African prince” who is “reduced to barbarism” when his sense of belonging to white civilization collapses. Kael also noted that no black actor at that point would dare to bring such “effrontery” to the role. “I saw Paul Robeson and he was not black as Olivier is,” wrote Kael, in what we would nowadays call a galaxy-brain take. And I bet she thought she was being progressive.

Of course, all such judgments are subjective to some extent. Is Ron Moody’s superb Fagin in Oliver! an anti-Semitic caricature? (When Moody first played the role onstage in 1960, he was criticized for playing to Jewish stereotypes, despite being Jewish himself.) I don’t think so; but when I saw the film again after many years, and for the first time as an adult, I was genuinely taken aback by how, well, ethnic Moody’s portrayal was. I can see why someone might find it troubling.

So yes, I totally get people being annoyed or upset by the 1965 Othello. I’d have a lot less (more like zero) sympathy for complaints about Orson Welles’s Othello, which has skin-darkening but not real “blackface,” or Anthony Hopkins’s excellent and “vaguely swarthy” (in one recent reviewer’s words) incarnation of the character for the BBC in 1981. (Prime Video carries that production with an irritating disclaimer that suggests they’re keeping it only as a faithful record of past racism, i.e. a white actor playing Othello.)

But to convict the 1965 Othello of racism, as Sheng’s critics have done, is overly simplistic. Yes, it traffics in some stereotypes that may evoke minstrelsy, but let’s not forget that Othello is still the noble hero (and one in an interracial marriage at that), and that the villain, Iago, is a racist. Does Olivier’s misguided blackface change that? Some will say yes. But at the very least, this should be open to debate (just like whether The Merchant of Venice should be canceled as viciously anti-Semitic or reclaimed as a critique of anti-Semitism is an ongoing debate).

My other quibble is with the claims that, as an immigrant, Sheng couldn’t be expected to know what blackface means in American culture. He’s been in the United States since 1982. It’s frankly a little baffling to me that it didn’t occur to him that the Olivier film could upset some people, especially in 2021. Doing so without any comments to the class framing it in advance was thoughtless.

But the professor’s thoughtlessness and the students’ discomfort hardly justify the disproportionate reaction.

Sheng’s troubles began when he screened the film on September 10 as part of an Othello project, focusing on the Shakespeare-to-Verdi adaptation and the process of forming an opera libretto. Apparently, some students complained right away, because Sheng sent an apology email shortly after the end of class, noting that the casting and the portrayal of Othello were “racially insensitive and outdated.” He also canceled the project.

I can’t judge that apology email, since the whole thing isn’t publicly available. If Sheng apologized for showing the film in class, I don’t think he needed to. It would have been enough to acknowledge the objections and discomfort and say that he should have introduced the screening with a disclaimer. It would have also helped to throw in a reminder that people who study art should know how to deal with classical art that is offensive by modern standards. And dropping the entire Othello project was totally unnecessary.

In any case, that should have been the end of it. But, obviously, it wasn’t.

The offended students pressed on. Five days later, David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, sent out an email apologizing for the incident and stating that “Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.” The email also said that the incident had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.

On September 16, Sheng emailed a formal apology to the department. The text is below.

(Reproduced courtesy of Sammy Sussman.)

First-year student Olivia Cook, who had been in Sheng’s class and told The Michigan Daily she was “stunned” by the Othello screening (“In such a school that preaches diversity … I was shocked that [Sheng] would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space”), was one of those not appeased.

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.”

Meanwhile, a group of students sent their own letter to Dean Gier.

A self-righteous Medium screed by Sammy Sussman, a University of Michigan senior majoring in composition and a campus investigative reporter, offers the background for this missive. Sussman, writing on September 30, declared that he felt a sad “numbness” at the school’s response. He was aghast at the department chair’s “casual dismissal of the hurt many of my classmates and I felt while watching this video.” The chair, for instance, had the temerity to write, “Respectfully, I think this may be something you ought to first discuss with Prof. Sheng… [He] should be allowed to address your questions before indicting him.” At the end of the email, the chair wrote:

If there is debate to be had, that is what Composition Seminar is for — to discuss, and find understandings, and build bridges where there is lack of connection. This can be an opportunity for discussion. I hope you hear where I’m coming from, and are interested to consider the possibility of multiple viewpoints.

Discussion! Debate! The horror! According to Sussman, “This is how the system of silence starts.” (Discussion = silence. Gotcha.) Didn’t the dean realize, Sussman inquired melodramatically, that the students were too frightened to say anything because they were powerless while Sheng was a distinguished academic and composer, and they had every reason to fear professional repercussions if they spoke up?

So basically, these students aren’t afraid to sign an irate letter denouncing Sheng and interpreting his every word in the most uncharitable way possible—if he mentions that he has mentored and helped some black students, that means he’s crediting their success entirely to himself!—but they’re scared to speak up in class and express objection to the racial caricature in Olivier’s performance. Since they’re musicians, this cries out for a “world’s smallest violin” joke.

Sussman, who has issues with Sheng for entirely unrelated and non-racial reasons—such as the fact that Sheng abruptly left the room during Sussman’s admissions interview, something that Sussman later learned he did often— made vague and ominous references to other unprofessional behavior by Sheng that he felt merited a reprimand. But above all, he expressed dismay that the school might be willing to “move on” from the Othello incident with no further investigation into Sheng’s “racist” and “harmful” act.

After the students’ letter was released, Sheng immediately stepped down from teaching the undergraduate seminar (which had been suspended in any case). It’s not clear whether he will suffer any other repercussions. The students want more sanctions against him, though Sussman believes his offense is not “firable.” What’s clear is that he has been publicly pilloried and strong-armed into abject apologies incommensurate to the act.

The Michigan Daily story on the latest developments provide some other revealing and appalling details. For instance, many graduate students have apparently been reaching out to undergrads to offer comfort after learning about the incident—as a “protective reaction,” according to the grad students who revealed this to the newspaper. Meanwhile, one of Sheng’s colleagues, professor of composition Evan Chambers, wrote in an email to the Daily that the community “need[s] to acknowledge” that Sheng is guilty of a racist act. According to Chambers:

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.

Another colleague, associate professor of composition Kristin Kuster, tweeted out Sussman’s Medium post with a comment about the need to discuss “pedagogical racism & pedagogical abuse” and tagged the Pulitzer Committee and the MacArthur Foundation.

This is a moral panic all right. It’s also a vicious witch-hunt. It is far worse than Sheng’s minor insensitivity. And even if the professor suffers no further sanctions, it provides yet more evidence that the academy is in trouble.

Updated with information on Kristin Kuster’s tweets about Sheng, courtesy of @japecake on Twitter.