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The Hollywood Insider Black Actors Shakespeare Adapted

Photo: Black Representation in Shakespeare, Denzel Washington in ‘Macbeth’

Scene by Scene, Building A Stage on Which to Shine

I was first introduced to a film version of a Shakespearean play when my 9th grade English teacher made our awkward and hormone ridden class sit through Baz Luhrman’s very sexy and incredibly trippy version of Romeo and Juliet, ‘Romeo + Juliet’, after we finished reading the play as a class. Upon watching this film I had one prevailing thought that stuck with me for years: Sure Leo and Claire Danes are great playing the infamous star-crossed lovers, but the most powerful performance in the film belonged to Harold Perrineau as Mercutio. 

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A pivotal role in both Shakespeare’s original play and in the film version, Mercutio is critical to the plot as he is Romeo’s best friend but is also connected to the family of Juliet and thereby able to mix with both of the warring houses. No small undertaking for any actor, but Perrineau shines in his ability to mix his comedic talent with the required dramatic and tense acting needed by the plot. Mercutio is an incredibly complicated character, one that seemingly takes nothing too seriously, while at the same has a temper and a desire for conflict. 

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Perrineau brings a wild intensity to this role that often walks the line of nearly being disturbing with how he plays the part. No scene puts this more on display than in the climactic one for his character when he meets his demise. Tybalt, also played masterfully by John Leguizamo, attempts to goad Romeo into a fight but Romeo (Leonardo Dicaprio) resists. Mercutio comes to Romeo’s defense and fights with Tybalt and has Tybalt dead to rights but Romeo interjects and prevents Mercutio from delivering the final blow, giving Tybalt enough time to regain his control and ultimately kill Mercutio instead. 

Black Representation in Shakespeare

Perrineau brings such a raw intensity to the scene and it truly shines through his acting as the defining moment of the film. The scene plays a pivotal role in how the remainder of the plot will unfold, but the way Perrineau performs Mercutio’s death is haunting and sticks with the viewer beyond the plot of the film. Perrineau is able to deliver a wide range of emotions in the climactic scene akin to the number of stars in the universe. He teeters masterfully between rage, elation, laughter, and ultimately resignation in a way I truly cannot ever remember seeing to date on screen then or since that first viewing. He uses his eyes as a weapon to be wielded to emote as he feels necessary, and in the truest sense, steals the show. 

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In a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, two very talented and prolific white actors, Harold Perrineau’s performance as Mercutio stands out as the highlight of the performances in the film. Many great actors over the years have undertaken the role of Mercutio from Orson Welles to Laurence Olivier and John Barrymore, though my money is on Perrineau’s performance of Shakespeare’s incredibly complicated character. 

Considering the time when this film came out in 1996, a time before we were really awake and paying attention to matters of representation, Perrineau owning this role as a Black man is something to truly be celebrated and appreciated. While the film as a whole gets some recognition for being more positively received, to me this performance by Perrineau deserves a tremendous amount of credit and acclaim for setting a strong example in his performance for what a Black man can accomplish in what I consider to be Shakespeare’s most strongly written role. 

“Beware My Lord of Jealousy” and of the Typecast…

As Harold Perrineau breathes a fresh take and new life into the role of a Shakespearean character, so too does Mekhi Phifer in ‘O’ the modern take on the play, Othello. Coming out a few years after ‘Romeo + Juliet’ in 2000, ‘O’ is a modern take on Shakespeare’s play about jealousy, race, and unrequited love. Mekhi Phifer stars in the titular role of Othello, in this film named “Odin”, a superstar high school basketball player in love with Desi (Desdemona) played by Julia Stiles

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The film follows a plot very similar to the original play, with Josh Hartnett playing the role of Iago, but here named Hugo. An incredibly heavy and complex play to begin with, this modern retelling dives even deeper into issues with race and perception that Shakespeare himself did not fully embrace in his time. As Odin, Phifer plays the only black player and student at the prestigious private high school all of the characters attend. 

While Hartnett and Stiles grace the cover of the film’s poster and Phifer is relegated to a smaller image (it’s insane check it out), Phifer carries the film as the most impressive talent. Phifer goes on a transformative experience at the hand of Hugo’s mastermind plan of manipulation. Odin begins the film being madly in love and happy with Desi to ultimately believing Hugo’s lies that she was unfaithful to him and kills her. In his portrayal of Odin, we get an increased depth into the character and examination of his emotional state than we ever do from the Othello in the play version. 

As Odin, Phifer contends constantly with the fact that he is the only black person in their entire school. There is a discourse from old theater directors (WILD!) contending that the part of Othello shouldn’t be played by a Black actor so as not to distract from the plot. This is an utterly insane take, considering the role is specifically written as a Black man. There is also a major troubled history with blackface and white actors such as Laurence Olivier being lauded for playing Othello, when the character is Black. 

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‘O’ and Mekhi Phifer attempt to take this issue head-on through his strong performance, aiming to take the character back and remove the nonsense of believing race has no part in the plot. The performance of Phifer is genuine and immensely thoughtful. While I’m sure most of the character and backstory of him are due to the script, Phifer brings Odin to life in a refreshing and intense way. The Othello of the play is also the only Black man around, but Odin feels and suffers for it.  He is drowned by his environment and suffocated at every turn, constantly aware and reminded of his Blackness just merely by looking around the room. 

Phifer’s final soliloquy at the film’s climax is incredibly emotional stuff, with him even referencing that he doesn’t want people’s perceptions of who he is and what he did by killing Desi to be believed to have anything to do with the color of his skin or his background. A powerful and haunting theme to end on and something that unfortunately still feels all too real. Odin is self-aware of the idea that he will implicitly be judged by the color of his skin, and those with power will use that against him to paint a narrative that they see fit through their own biases. Mekhi Phifer brings a raw intensity to his performance as Odin that brings the character into a new light not yet seen before. 

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Don’t Look Now, But This Might be a Movement

With Perrineau and Phifer taking the charge some 20 years earlier, we now arrive in 2022 and ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ written and directed by Joel Coen and starring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. One of Shakespeare’s most popular and time-tested plays up there with Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet; Macbeth has been adapted for the screen countless times. 

In fact, just by searching “Macbeth” on my Apple TV, I received over 20 hits, none of which were the film I actually sought out to watch. In ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, Coen brings the play back to the screen in a beautifully shot black and white film and gives Denzel Washington a runway with which to take his brilliant acting skills and fly. As most likely the most prominent Black male actor for the past 30 years, Denzel Washington, a Shakespearean stage veteran, makes his second foray into filmed Shakespeare with his role as Macbeth. 

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With Washington in the leading role as the ambitious and murderous Scotsman, the film opens the casting to numerous Black performers who all bring tremendous power to their roles. Washington is incredible as Macbeth as he makes his turn from celebrated soldier and Thane into the mad and murderous king, owning and putting his own signature stamp on each soliloquy as if he wrote them himself. Direct stage to film adaptations are incredibly tricky to pull off in the first place, and if they are going to work the performances need to be top-notch. Washington gives us exactly that and his fellow castmates are certainly up for the challenge as well. 

Joining Washington in the cast are fellow Black actors Corey Hawkins as the pivotal Macduff, and Moses Ingram as a delightful scene-stealing Lady Macduff and other performers as well in smaller roles. Whereas some 20 years ago we had one standout Black actor per adapted work of Shakespeare, this version of Macbeth seems to imply that there is no longer a quota or cap on the diversity in the representation. I for one am a tremendous fan of what was done in this production and its casting of these incredible actors based on the merits of their talent and opening a pipeline and the minds of an audience to what a new production of Shakespeare can look like. Representation like this in film is key for so many reasons, chief among them for me is the ability to inspire future generations. 

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Black representation in the works of Shakespeare has come a very long way in the five hundred-ish years since he first wrote these plays down. To live in a time where a film like ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ exists, no matter how bleak things may seem at times, truly makes me excited for the future of Black representation in film. The performances of Harold Perrineau, Mekhi Phifer, Denzel Washington, Corey Hawkins, and Moses Ingram will hopefully shine for generations of Black children to understand and see themselves in these incredible works of art. The storytelling and themes of Shakespeare are so universally connected to the human condition that it is so important for all peoples not to feel alienated or that they are inaccessible but that they can see themselves and what they may be going through in life within these works. 

By Mark Raymond

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Author

  • Mark Raymond is a writer and screenwriter who believes himself to be the only person desiring to work in film who originated in New York and currently resides in Los Angeles. Mark was inspired to write from a young age and has always desired to connect and uplift others through his work, as those that motivated him did for him. Mark feels very strongly that the world could use a lot more positivity and optimism, and is therefore very aligned to the mission of The Hollywood Insider to not spread hate or gossip, but instead to build each other up and shine a positive light on anyone bold enough to put their heart and soul into a piece of art. In his writing, Mark aims to use his signature wit to highlight the severity of the more serious and pressing issues of our time, to shine a beacon of light through the darkness. A devoted ally to all, he seeks to inspire and use his platform to give a voice to the voiceless and let his readers know that while everything may not be great right now, one day it can and will be.

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