He Got Game meets Othello, O breaks down Shakespeare’s super-sized tragedy to Othello Jr. It boils the plot down to the bones, evaporating its high tragedy into racial and violent bitterness, then dresses up what remains in varsity-basketball jerseys and prep-school uniforms.

Decorated Moorish (African) field general Othello is downsized into a young, black commander of round ball who got much game, Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). Named after the Scandinavian god-in-chief of war, O isn’t all that. He’s just the boy-that-would-be-NBA king. Iago and Cassio, Othello’s right-hand men — until the Moor promotes Cassio to lieutenant over the other — shrink into Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett) and Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan), the foundation of O’s team, his guard and power forward. When O picks Mike to stand up beside him and share the glory of his most-valuable-player award, Hugo takes it as a major dis. He schemes to play both like violins. O’s rich white girl, Desi (Julia Stiles) — demoted from Othello’s white-in-white virgin bride, Desdemona — and O’s jealousy become Hugo’s bow. The tune is Iago’s and foul: Even though Desi has been saving all her love for O, Hugo uses his girl Emily (Rain Phoenix) and his stooge Jason (Christopher Jones) to set her up in O’s jealous eyes as Mike’s whore. But the sweetness of revenge has the bitter aftertaste of Columbine lite.

And that’s part of O’s problem: Not only is it small-fry-scaled, but it carries enough cultural baggage to almost smother Shakespeare’s theme of jealousy. With its climax of vengeful teen gunplay resulting in a body count, it’s been released only after the last whiff of the Columbine High School massacre’s stench has blown over.

With the flawless dark complexion, ivory-white teeth and profile of a classic Nubian prince, Phifer is truly African-American. You could hear the wounded sighs of African-American women in the audience who had to suffer watching one more prized brother fall into the arms of a white woman who isn’t “all that” — with disastrous consequences. (Is it a coincidence that O’s initials are “O.J.”?)

At least Stiles’ last so-called “biracial love story,” Save the Last Dance (2001), confronted the issue straight-up. O ignores it: It’s not part of the story. “Niggah” creeps up like a subliminal message in the rap soundtrack. But O and Desi make it plain while they lie chastely naked in her dorm room bed: O can use the word because he is one; she can’t — even when she provocatively teases him to play “black buck let loose in the big house.”

Ignorant of the workings of tragedy — and issues of race that even Shakespeare understood — O is not an exclamation, just a bitter sigh.

Read an interview with director Tim Blake Nelson, and find out more about how the film finally made it to the screen, in this week's Reckless Eyeballing.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].

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