Tuesday, September 27, 2022

David Harewood on White Actors ‘Blacking Up’ to Play Othello

david harewood 1

*Fans of David Harewood still can’t get over his rather explosive exit from “Homeland” in 2012.

David Harewood as David Estes, just before an explosion took his life in "Homeland"
David Harewood as CIA Director David Estes, just before an explosion took his life in “Homeland”

The actor is back on television Friday, Feb. 6, in a gig considerably less stressful than that of CIA Director David Estes, and one where he gets to keep his British accent.

Harewood hosts this week’s episode of PBS’ “Shakespeare Uncovered,” a series that investigates one Shakespeare work per show, and not just the theatrical production itself, but also the play’s history, how Shakespeare came up with the plot, the ways in which the plays have been interpreted through the centuries, and more.

Harewood’s episode tackles Shakespeare’s Othello.

David Harewood in Shakespeare's Othello
David Harewood in Shakespeare’s Othello

The main character is a Moor, of North African and Arab descent. However, racism in Hollywood and on world stages has kept black actors from actually starring as Othello well into the 20th century.

London’s prestigious National Theatre didn’t get its first black actor in the role until 1997, when Harewood, himself, filled the Venetian general’s shoes. Even then, the British press questioned the necessity of his casting.

“There were several, broadsheet articles in newspapers kind of bemoaning political correctness and saying, you know, ‘Why shouldn’t Brian Cox be playing this? This is ridiculous that this unknown black actor should be saddling this part,’” Harewood told the TCA in January.

Harewood forged on with his historic portrayal, which rendered him a nervous wreck on opening night.

“Just before I went on stage, the enormity of what I was about to do kind of hit me, and I completely forgot my lines,” he said. “And I had to, kind of, compose myself and just walk on there. As I walked on, I was very much aware that I was the first black actor at the National to do it.”

shakespeare uncovered still

In “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Harewood doesn’t hold back in criticizing Laurence Olivier’s historic portrayal of Othello in the 1964 film, which had the legendary thespian in perhaps the blackest of blackfaces ever worn by white actors playing Othello – not to mention a short afro wig.

Laurence Olivier as Othello

Below, Harewood talks about the absurdity of white actors having to play Othello, and why Olivier’s portrayal in particular was “ridiculous.”

“Shakespeare Uncovered: Othello with David Harewwod” airs on PBS, Friday, Feb. 6, at 10 p.m.

During the episode, he learns about the Moorish ambassador who visited the court of Queen Elizabeth I and may have inspired Shakespeare. He meets the National Theatre’s latest Othello, Adrian Lester, who has also starred in a play about Ira Aldridge, the 19th-century American actor who was the first black man ever to play the role in England; the reviews were shockingly racist. And he watches different Othellos on film, including Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed if controversial “blacked-up” version from the 1960s.

Watch a clip below:

Also in the episode, a forensic psychiatrist helps to analyze Iago and how he manipulates Othello by persuading him that his young wife is having an affair. Harewood meets Simon Russell Beale, who played Iago to his Othello, and they re-examine the lethal relationship.

Imogen Stubbs and Sir Ian McKellen, who starred in Trevor Nunn’s production; Julia Stiles, whose movie “O” was a modern take on the play; and Sir Patrick Stewart, who played Othello in a “color-reversed” production, also reflect on their characters.



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