The release of O was, in fact, almost derailed by trouble-plagued youth. Scheduled to hit theaters in spring 2000, the film's opening was halted when its string of homicides on a prep school campus rubbed up too closely with a real-life school killing: the April 1999 Columbine murders. The project was shelved by Miramax until it was picked up by Lion's Gate, who took the perhaps more profitable tack of making teenage killing sprees into the stuff of epic tragedy.
It makes sense in this Othello that the story's battleground would be the bloodthirsty and political arena of high school sports. The setting is a modern-day gladiator pit, a forum for deranged parents, salivating college recruiters, heart-attack-headed coaches and steroid-addicted athletes who are kings in the high school hierarchy. That sweaty amphitheater gives director Tim Blake Nelson's film an aura of snarky social commentary that puts the film a head or two above other movies focused on the S.A.T. set.
The disputed territory of O is the high school basketball court where third-string player Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett) conspires to unseat the star athlete and only black student, Odin (Mekhi Phifer), at their Charleston boarding school. Odin is the much-envied Romeo to the school's blonde prom queen, Desi (Julia Stiles).
Though it first appears that Hugo's driving force is lust for Desi, the jealousy he harbors for Odin seems more inspired by the attention his father, coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen), heaps on his star player and denies his own son. Hugo plots to convince Odin that Desi is sleeping with his best friend, and, like any schoolyard gossip, that initial spark soon erupts into a wildfire.
As in Shakespeare's play, Nelson autopsies the thin veneer of civility that hides a darker world of prejudice, deranging jealousy and subterfuge. The high school setting for O was inspired by screenwriter Brad Kaaya's own tenure as a black preppie at a white high school. Kaaya has removed the Bard's vernacular, but the intrigue remains in his moody adaptation.
O has much to say about contemporary racism, which is more cleverly hidden than in Shakespeare's day but just as destructive. Beneath Hugo's plotting to discredit Desi is an allegory of the Black Man corrupted to the point of ruin by white cunning and drugs. Ultimately it may be too talky and its storyline too labyrinthine to appeal to short attention spans, or it may just strike a chord in showing how dire gossip, rivalries and unmet wants can be for a teenager. O is heavy, morose stuff primed to appeal to the drama-addicted grandiosity of the teen brain.
It is almost possible at this point to program a film series of movies in which Stiles gets busy with a black teen a la O and Save the Last Dance. But the interracial kids of the latter movie seem relatively naive and sweet compared to jaded preppies like Odin and Desi, who joke about sex play involving Odin as the "big black buck" in the master's house. There is something at the root of such joshing. It is implied that Odin's only real value to the school is on the court, as frank an assessment as any of the "value" of black athletes in a nation still jumpy about race.
But O hits choppier waters when it begins mucking about in sexual politics, which seem the least updated feature of the film. There is more than a hint of misogyny in O and something patently ugly about the wild-eyed mania that infects Odin once he begins to suspect that Desi is a "ho." Though events tend to turn out badly (this being a Shakespeare-based sauce), there is the merest hint that Odin would have been justified in roughing up his girlfriend if she had stepped out on him.
Part of the danger in setting this film (and its script and direction) in a world of men is how it begins to absorb some of the macho ambiance. Male ego is a volatile, delicate thing in this tale of sports and promiscuity, and in this regard, O has a great deal of resemblance to Columbine. Like the Trench Coat Mafia, whose murders may have been partly inspired by the web of words and verbal cruelty of high school, Odin is undone by innuendo and suggestion and takes revenge for his defamed masculinity with violence.