A music professor at the University of Michigan is no longer teaching his undergraduate composition course following controversy over his decision to show a movie starring a white actor in blackface.
Bright Sheng is an accomplished composer and professor at the university’s School of Music, Drama and Dance in Ann Arbor, Mich., But has now ceased teaching the course in question following significant criticism.
The composition class was to focus on the works of William Shakespeare and on September 10, Sheng showed a film version of the classic play. Othello. The eponymous main character is described as a “Moor” and has often been described as black.
The 1965 film starred highly regarded British Shakespearean actor Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role. He wore blackface all over.
A student who attended the class where the film was screened, Olivia Cook, recounted Michigan Daily: “I was stunned.”
“In such a school that preaches diversity and makes sure they understand the history of POCs (people of color) in America, I was shocked that [Sheng] would show something like that in something that’s supposed to be a safe space. “
Cook said the students were not given any prior warning that the film featured a blackface. Sheng sent an apology on September 10 shortly after the class ended and admitted that the film “was race-insensitive and out of date.”
On September 15, David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Drama and Dance, emailed the entire department to apologize for the incident.
“Professor Sheng’s actions do not match our school’s commitment to anti-racism action, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gier’s email said.
On the same day, Sheng also issued a formal apology, but the way he worded the apology sparked further controversy.
“In a classroom, I am a teacher representing the university and I should have thought about it more diligently and thoroughly; I apologize that this action was offensive and made you angry,” said Sheng, adding that he had lost the confidence of the students.
Sheng has listed instances where he has worked with people of color and this section of the apology has drawn further criticism.
“At the world premiere of my opera The Silver River in South Carolina in 2000, I chose an African-American actress (for the lead role), an Asian dancer and a white baritone for the three main characters,” he said. he wrote. to give more examples and say that he never considered himself “discriminating against a race”.
On September 23, Gier received an open letter signed by 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduate students, and nine faculty and staff calling for Sheng to be removed from the course.
“Professor Sheng responded to these events by writing an inflammatory letter of apology to the students of the department in which he chose to defend himself by listing all the people in BIPOC that he helped or with whom he linked up. friendship throughout his career, ”the letter said. “The letter suggests that it is thanks to him that many of them have succeeded in their careers.”
Sheng quit teaching the undergraduate course after hearing about the open letter and pointed out that he apologized in an email to The Michigan Daily. He said his intention had been to show how composer Giuseppe Verdi adapted Othello in an opera. He still teaches students in his workshop and does other work.
“I was thinking [that] in most cases the principle of casting was based on the musical quality of the singers, ”he wrote.“ Of course, the weather [sic] has changed, and I made a mistake while showing this movie. It was insensitive of me, and I’m so sorry for that. “
Sheng also issued his controversial apology, “In my formal apology letter to the entire composition department… I’m just trying to say that I don’t discriminate.”
“Looking back, maybe I should have apologized just for my mistake,” he said.
The 1965 film was controversial for Olivier’s use of blackface even in its day. In a 1966 article, film critic Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that Olivier’s blackface was a “radical make-up” that “pushes the sensitive American viewer into a bewildered and bewildered attitude”.
Crowther said Olivier’s performance was “the now outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotype.”