Orson Welles Doesn't See Color In Othello

Orson Welles Doesn't See Color In Othello

How have film perspectives on race changed over time?

Othello is a tragic story of love twisted into an all-consuming revenge. The titular character, Othello, is a decorated war hero from the Moors. Even though he is highly accomplished, he is still isolated from the rest of society, mainly due to his race and foreign background. Othello is led falsely to believe his newfound wife Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio by the less than honest Iago, a man under Othello’s command hell-bent on bringing him down. He spirals into a jealous rage, further ostracizing himself from the rest of society.

Throughout all of this, Othello’s ethnicity, the not so quiet elephant in the room, influences the course of action of the play and the way that the characters, including Othello in the end, view him. Orson Welles’s 1951 version of Othello almost completely erased the theme of race that is so prevalent in the play and as a result warps the original meaning.

Othello’s race precedes him. It is one of the first things that the audience learns about him before he physically enters the story. Iago awakens Brabantio, a Venetian nobleman, to tell him his young daughter Desdemona has eloped with Othello. Iago refers to Othello as an “old black ram…tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” . Even though he is well-decorated with accomplishments, Othello is reduced to an animal. He is portrayed as a ram, an aggressive horned male sheep, while Desdemona is a white ewe, the pure, more docile sheep counterpart.

He openly discusses their sexual relationship in a disgusting way, dehumanizing their love and marriage. Iago then further threatens Brabantio with Othello’s race, saying “the devil will make a grandsire of you” . In accordance with the previous horned accusation, Othello is directly portrayed as the devil, something that shows society’s fear of foreigners at the time. Iago insinuates that this black stain on Brabantio’s family will continue indefinitely through the children that Othello will sire. Iago is aware of the racist undertones of Venetian society and uses it to his advantage.

By the end of the play, Othello fully accepts the racist ideas of society, showing his internalized racism. When he first suspects Desdemona of cheating on him he refers to her name as now “begrimed and black as mine own face" when it was fresh before. Othello associates blackness and his own face as something stained and grimy, echoing the previous racist statements of Brabantio, Iago, and the Duke of Venice. By associating Desdemona’s white visage with freshness, Othello starts to show his obsession with white purity and his internalized self-loathing.

He again shows his fixation on whiteness when he prepares to murder Desdemona and refuses to “shed [Desdemona’s] blood, nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow”. Othello further shows his negative association of blackness when he says “arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell”. His internal self-loathing becomes external after he kills Desdemona and realizes that she was innocent of cheating all along. He describes himself as a “base Judean [who] threw a pearl away”. This account shows that he sees himself as a base savage ignorant of the true value of the pristine white woman in front of him. By the end of the play it is obvious that race plays a key role in Othello, something that Orson Welles completely ignores in his film.

The film is shot in black and white, which is the first decision that Orson Welles makes to eliminate color from Othello. Welles plays Othello himself, showing his blatant disregard to staying true to the racial nature of the play because simply: Welles is not black. Welles appears to be slightly bronzed, something that is not exactly blackface, but still is offensive.

The most that the film does to address Othello’s origin is to repeatedly call him “the Moor”. In fact, the racial remarks said in the play by Brabantio, Iago, and Othello are omitted or not focused on. Brabantio alludes to Othello using witchcraft to enchant his daughter, but this is never tied directly into ethnicity. Welles portrays Othello in an entirely self-confident way, ignoring the internal struggle Othello has over his blackness that appears in the text. In creating the film version of Othello Welles must have decided that the prevalent issue of race in Othello was something not important enough to focus on, which is derogatory and inaccurate.

Cover Image Credit: Flickr

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