The ”Othello” in high school drama ”O” would seem to have all the ingredients for a hit: a cast of rising stars like Julia Stiles (”10 Things I Hate About You”), Mekhi Phifer (”Shaft”), and Josh Hartnett (”The Faculty”), and a gritty script that some industry watchers say could merit Academy Award consideration — if the film ever gets a theatrical release.
The update of the Shakespearian tragedy — set in a posh prep school, where an African American basketball star (Phifer) falls for a rich white student (Stiles), only to be destroyed by a scheming white rival (Hartnett) — was originally scheduled to open in October 1999. But the movie’s distributor, Dimension Films (the genre movie division of Miramax, which is owned by Disney), has postponed it three times. Now studio reps say ”O” may not see movie theaters until March or April 2001, and even that date isn’t secure.
What’s the hold up? Director Tim Blake Nelson says Dimension execs fear criticism by lawmakers, who have been ripping Hollywood for promoting R rated and violent films to teenagers. ”Typical facile politics,” Nelson tells EW.com. ”That is entirely what is affecting the release of the film.” Nelson thinks certain scenes — such as the rape of Stiles’ character by Phifer’s, and a bloody high school shooting — made Dimension execs wary about releasing the movie in the wake of the April 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School. But it’s his belief that the much publicized tragedy only makes ”O” more relevant. ”This is not exploitive Hollywood teen porn,” Nelson says. ”It’s a serious film, and I think that’s what interested Miramax in the first place.” (Nelson does credit the studio for not interfering creatively with the making of ”O.”)
The director says that when he first screened the film for Bob Weinstein (the Miramax cochair and Dimension president) and other studio execs a month after Columbine, it was clear they didn’t think the public was ready for it: ”You could just tell in the room that they were thinking, ‘What are we going to do with this now? Can America see this?”’
For their part, Miramax reps say consideration for the public — not politics — led to the studio’s decision to delay Nelson’s film. ”’O’ is a movie that deals with sensitive issues that are important to our country,” reads a press statement sent from Bob Weinstein’s office. ”Therefore, we felt the responsible thing was to postpone the release due to the sensitive events occurring at that time. We are presently formulating the proper marketing plan for the film that deals with these social issues, and are looking for the proper release date in the calendar year 2001.”