I don't know if it's necessary to blur Laurence Olivier's face as Sammy Sussman does below: Playing a blackface video isn’t fireable. It shouldn’t be okay. Sammy Sussman, Substack, 4 days ago
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.https://t.co/cZMIyZe5kw— Sammy Sussman (@Sammy_Sussman) September 30, 2021
Olivier's face is, after all, blurred in the original by makeup intending to make him look like an African.
Sussman [Email him], right, is not himself a person of color. The person who showed the horrified Sussman Olivier playing Othello was a person of color: Professor Bright Sheng, a native of Shanghai in China, and Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at U. Mich:
Almost three weeks ago, my classmates and I were shown a blackface video in class without warning or discussion. Our semester was supposed to be spent “analyzing Othello, from Shakespeare to Verdi, to give [us] an overall sense of how to form an opera libretto.” To begin, our professor decided to play the 1965 National Theater Company production in which Laurence Olivier covers his face in black makeup and adopts a deeper, lower voice reminiscent of American minstrelsy. “He plays Othello in blackface!... The consequence is that he hits one — the sensitive American, anyhow — with the by-now outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotyped,” the New York Times wrote of the movie in 1966. I couldn’t believe that Professor Bright Sheng decided to show my class this video 2021.
In the weeks since this incident, our class meetings for this course have been cancelled. We’ve received numerous emails from administrators and department faculty reaffirming our school’s commitment to anti-racism and diversity, equity and inclusion. We’ve been told that this incident is being “investigated” and we’ve received an anonymous survey meant to study our experiences in the department.
Nevertheless, I’m saddened by the numbness I feel when I consider professor Sheng’s decision and my school’s response. I know I should be more outraged that we were shown this video. I should be angry that Prof. Sheng’s “apology” for this incident involved a list of the Black students and faculty he’s worked with over the years. And I should be horrified at my university’s failure to quickly and effectively address this incident.
Sussman's problem is that he's a crazy person living in a crazy time going to a crazy university—supported by the State of Michigan's taxpayers.
Professor Bright Sheng's problem is that he's a Chinaman: having been raised in China, he apparently had no idea of how crazy Americans, especially modern Woke student-Americans, would be driven by watching a great actor play a member of another race.
The 1966 Bosley Crowther review of Othello quoted above was titled The Screen: Minstrel Show 'Othello': Radical Makeup Marks Olivier's Interpretation.
Apparently Crowther felt that it was OK for Olivier to play a black character as long as he neither looked nor acted like an actual black person.
Below, I reproduce in its entirety my 2017 post: "Olivier's Occupation's Gone"—When White Men Were Allowed To Play Black Roles, Olivier Tried Harder.
When Steve Sailer said in TakiMag that in spite of Sir Laurence Olivier's sincere attempt to black himself up for the role of Othello, he "just looked like Charlton Heston in blackface," what he means is that Olivier's Caucasian features showed through the makeup at close range.
However, Olivier did make an effort to act like an African.
When two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, played black characters Amos Jones and Andy Brown on the radio, in the iconic Amos 'n' Andy show, they had no problem imitating what at the time was called "Negro dialect." (I say iconic—but it's been Deplorable for years, of course.)
But when they tried to turn their radio success into a feature film in 1930, it was a miserable failure.
The problem is that that while they could "talk the talk" they couldn't "walk the walk"—literally, in both cases. They sounded black, but they didn't move like blacks.
There's a scene in the 1970s movie Silver Streak in which white comic Gene Wilder, on the run from the police, has to disguise himself as a black to get on a train. Below, you see Richard Pryor trying to get him to actually walk like a black person:
It's a success both comedically and as stratagem to get him on the train, but it's Deplorable now, too.
A 1950's TV show of Amos 'n Andy featured actual black actors—but it was taken off the air due to NAACP pressure. (Yes, it's Deplorable, too—a black woman writing on Slate.com called it "infamous.")
You can see what I mean about Olivier, as an actor, moving like a person of African descent here:
In the early 1960s both Gielgud and Olivier played Othello for the first time in their careers. Gielgud spoke the verse with his usual music, but he was physically and vocally too light to play the warrior credibly. Olivier lifted weights, deepened his voice, and played the noble Moor as a wildly jealous African. It was a complete misreading of the play, but it was electrifying.
You can watch the whole thing below—it's the last time, apparently, that it's going to be done by a white actor.