A professor of music at the University of Michigan is no longer teaching his undergraduate composition class following controversy over his decision to show a movie featuring a white actor in blackface.
Bright Sheng is an accomplished composer and professor at the university’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor, Michigan but has now stepped down from teaching the course in question following significant criticism.
The composition course 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 frequently been depicted as a Black man.
The 1965 movie starred the highly regarded British Shakespearean actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, in the title role. He wore blackface throughout.
One student who attended the class where the film was screened, Olivia Cook, told The Michigan Daily: “I was stunned.”
“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.”
Cook said students were given no prior warning that the movie featured blackface. Sheng sent an apology on September 10 shortly after the class ended and acknowledged the movie “was racially insensitive and outdated.”
On September 15, David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, sent a department-wide email apologizing for the incident.
“Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gier’s email said.
On the same day, Sheng also issued a formal apology but the way in which he framed that apology caused further controversy.
“In a classroom, I am a teacher representing the university and I should have thought of this more diligently and fundamentally; I apologize that this action was offensive and has made you angry,” Sheng said, adding that he had lost students trust.
Sheng listed instances where he worked with people of color and this section of the apology garnered renewed criticism.
“At the world premiere of my opera The Silver River in South Carolina in 2000, I casted an African American actress (for the leading role), an Asian female dancer and a white baritone for the three main characters,” he wrote, going on to give more examples and saying he never thought of himself as “discriminating against any 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 crafting an inflammatory ‘apology’ letter to the department’s students in which he chose to defend himself by listing all of the BIPOC individuals who he has helped or befriended throughout his career,” the letter said. “The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.”
Sheng stepped down from teaching the undergraduate course after hearing about the open letter and stressed that he was apologetic in an email to The Michigan Daily. He said his intention had been to show how the composer Giuseppe Verdi adapted Othello into an opera. He is still teaching students in his studio as well as carrying out other work.
“I thought [that] in most cases, the casting principle was based on the music quality of the singers,” he wrote. “Of course, time [sic] has changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film. It was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.”
Sheng also addressed his controversial apology: “In my formal apology letter to the whole composition department … I simply try to say that I do not discriminate.”
“In retrospect, perhaps I should have apologized for my mistake only,” he said.
The 1965 movie was controversial for Olivier’s use of blackface even in its own era. In a 1966 article, film critic Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that Olivier’s blackface was “radical makeup” that “impels the sensitive American viewer into a baffled and discomfited attitude.”
Crowther said Olivier’s performance was “the by-now outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotype.”