Prof Bright Sheng steps down after 'woke' students object to screening 1965 'Othello'

Composer Bright Sheng was asked to stop after he showed students the 1965 version of 'Othello' in which Laurence Olivier wore a blackface

                            Prof Bright Sheng steps down after 'woke' students object to screening 1965 'Othello'
A scene from the 1965 film 'Othello' with Laurence Olivier in blackface (IMDb) with an insert of Bright Sheng (Bright Sheng website)

A University of Michigan professor has been removed from his post after he showed the Oscar-nominated 1965 film 'Othello' in class. The issue? Actor Laurence Olivier, who plays the titular role, was in blackface. After that showing in September, students complained to higher-ups and Bright Sheng was subsequently removed from his post. 

The incident is just the latest example of cancel culture's effect on American education. From a major talking point of the GOP, cancel culture has slowly crept into all areas of American life. In May,  a St John’s University professor was fired for reading the n-word from Mark Twain’s anti-slavery novel 'Pudd’nhead Wilson'. In June, we reported that the FAA was looking to replace gendered terms like 'cockpit' and 'airman'. The USTA is also looking into its 'Come and Take it' slogan, after claims it was racist in September. 


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According to reports, Sheng's firing was made possible after students complained about the film screening and had no remorse about doing so. That is despite the professor's apology that the film was "racially insensitive and outdated." In fact, the Dean had to weigh in and send out an apology as well, but it appears that's not enough for the "woke" students.

Professor Bright Sheng. (Bright Sheng website)

Film shows 'without context'

Having been at the university for 26 years, Sheng is also an internationally accomplished conductor, composer, and pianist, who has also been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize on two occasions. The Chinese-born musician has had his music featured by prestigious groups including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra, and the New York City Ballet Orchestra. But all that meant little to some students at the University of Michigan.

On September 10, Sheng screened the 1965 classic as part of his composition class. The screening was meant to help analyze the works of Shakespeare, and how "'opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera." But rather than focus on that, freshman Olivia Cook was left distracted by something else. "I was stunned," she told the Michigan Daily when she found out that Olivier had played the role in blackface. "In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space."

A poster for the 1965 film 'Othello'. (IMDb)


Reportedly, the students were not given a warning or any context for why the film was being screened, in a composition of music class. She immediately filed a complaint, and the same day Sheng sent out an apology email. But it didn't end there.

Stepping down 'the bare minimum'

David Gier, the Dean of the School of Music sent out a department-wide email acknowledging the incident and apologizing for it on Sept 15. "Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity, and inclusion," he wrote. The next day, Sheng sent out a formal apology to the department. "I apologize that this action was offensive and has made you angry," he said.

One student told The Daily Mail that Sheng's stepping down was the "bare minimum" and added, "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." Over 30 students also signed a letter to the Gier over Sheng's actions, and called his apology "inflammatory". "The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers," they wrote. 

The long-serving professor won't be leaving the university though. His composition of music classes is now being taken by another member, while he continues to work on teaching students in his studio, serving other departmental and school-wide duties, and working on research projects. As for the film itself, it went on to garner eight Oscar nominations despite just playing for two days. 

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