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University of Michigan professor steps down after outrage over showing movie with blackface

A University of Michigan professor in the “Music, Theatre, and Dance,” department has stepped down after a complaint was issued after he showed a movie with a character in blackface, reports Newsweek. Bright Sheng, who’s also an acclaimed composer showed his students “Othello” during a composition course focusing on the works of William Shakespeare last month. The movie released in 1965 had a character named the “Moor” played by a white actor Sir Laurence Olivier who was in blackface. A student in the class was upset with the movie and issued a complaint to higher-ups at the school.

Consequently, on the same day, Sheng apologized shortly after and deemed the movie “racially insensitive and outdated.” The apology was not accepted by the student body and the dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance issued his own apology and condemned Sheng’s action.

“Professor Sheng’s action do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action diversity, equity, and inclusion,” David Gier said.

Sheng issued a second apology the following week but that apology was met with further criticism.

“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. “It also has made me lost(sic) you trust … ‘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.”

His apology inflamed the offended who didn’t like that he used examples of “BIPOC individuals” he helped out in his apology.

The student body issued a letter signed by 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduates students, and nine faculty members calling on Sheng to be fired.

“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.”

Soon after, Bright Sheng stepped down from his position and explained that he was only trying to show how composer Giuseppe Verdi adapted Othello into an opera.

“I thought [that] in most cases, the casting principle was based on the music quality of the singers,” he wrote. “Of course, time has changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film. It was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.”

He also apologized for his initial apology and recognized how it could have been better.

“In my formal apology letter to the whole composition department … I simply try to say that I do not discriminate,” he said. “In retrospect, perhaps I should have apologized for my mistake only.”

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