A renowned professor from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has come under fire for showing students a movie from 1965 that featured blackface. The film in question was Othello starring Laurence Olivier. Throughout the film, Olivier appears in blackface, and modern-day students in Ann Arbor are furious about it, which has forced the University of Michigan to remove Professor Bright Sheng from their roster.
The movie screening occurred last month. Professors Sheng wanted to share the movie with students because it was nominated for Academy Awards. However, at least one of the students in the class complained to leaders at the university about how Olivier wore blackface throughout the film.
Sheng decided to show the movie because he was teaching a class about Shakespeare’s work. He hoped that the Olivier movie would demonstrate to students “how the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera.”
Olivia Cook was the freshman student who filed the complaint. She was shocked that Olivier was portrayed in blackface as he played the role of the Moorish king in the movie.
“I was stunned,” Cook told Michigan Daily. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of people of color in America, I was shocked Sheng would show something like this is something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”
Cook was surprised that the film was shown without warning from Professor Sheng to help students prepare themselves to see blackface.
Following the complaint, the University of Michigan removed Professor Sheng from his post and released a statement that said blackface is “not acceptable” as it has been historically used to mock people.
The movie screening prompted students to protest outside of Professors’ Hall on campus this week by wearing all black clothing and holding signs with messages like: “Blackface is not OK.”
The protest was organized by three students, including Allyson Hobbs, who wrote an editorial piece in the student newspaper The Michigan Daily about how there’s “no place for blackface” at any institution of higher learning.
Meanwhile, Professor Sheng has apologized to anyone who may have taken offense to his movie screening, but he also believes that “nothing [in the movie] is glorifying blackface.”
The professor has been affiliated with the University of Michigan since 1984, and for years he’s taught music to children in Ann Arbor.
He recently composed a symphony inspired by Chinese culture, which will be performed at Carnegie Hall on February 23.
A graduate student remarked that Sheng’s removal from the college was the “bare minimum” of the consequences.
“I feel like the thing that we all actually needed (was) a true and honest and genuine understanding that he did something wrong, not just (him) trying to defend himself. I feel like there’s still a lack of trust there because none of us think he is actually sorry.”
Although Sheng has apologized for showing the movie to his class, it could not undo the damage.
The freshman, Cook added, “‘He could have taken responsibility for his actions and realized that this was harmful to some of his students that are within his class. 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.”
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