The latest victim of “cancel culture” is a renowned composer who survived China’s Cultural Revolution only to be accused by college undergraduates of racism for showing the 1965 film “Othello” featuring Laurence Olivier.
Bright Sheng, the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan School Of Music, Theater, and Dance, is by all accounts a renowned composer, conductor, and pianist. As The Michigan Daily reported, his music has been featured by “prestigious groups including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra.” He’s also received “numerous awards and fellowships,” and “received a commission in honor of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visiting the White House in 1999.”
But all of that success was no match for a bunch of college students claiming trauma and demanding Sheng be punished even after he apologized and made clear that he meant no offense.
On September 10, freshman Olivia Cook attended Sheng’s composition seminar. The course that year was going to analyze the works of William Shakespeare, and Sheng’s first class featured the 1965 film “Othello,” which featured actor Laurence Olivier wearing blackface. Sheng told the Daily that he showed the film to highlight how opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted the play. Sheng told the outlet that cross-casting happens regularly in opera and didn’t see Olivier’s performance “the same as the minstrel performances which did degrade African Americans.”
“I thought [that] in most cases, the casting principle was based on the music quality of the singers,” Sheng wrote to the paper. “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.”
Of course, in today’s woke culture, intentions don’t matter. All that matters is the feelings of the most sensitive students looking to be outraged and root out alleged offenders.
Cook, the undergraduate who attended Sheng’s showing of “Othello,” told the Daily that she realized something was wrong when the film began, but didn’t realize she could be outraged until “further inspection,” when she noticed Olivier was in blackface.
“I was stunned,” Cook said. “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.”
Sheng was alerted to his error and sent out an apology shortly after class, saying Olivier’s casing was “racially insensitive and outdated.”
That wasn’t good enough. Five days later, David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, sent an email to the department that mentioned the incident and also apologized.
“Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gier said in the email, according to the Daily. Gier also said in his email that Sheng had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX over the incident.
On September 16, Sheng sent out another apology, a formal one to the entire department. This apology said he had done more research into racism in America.
“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 wrote, according to the Daily. “It also has made me lost [sic] your trust.”
Sheng also included multiple examples of how he cast people of color in his previous operas. This angered students further, who claimed these examples were just excuses and made it seem like he was insisting he had been responsible for the success of those he cast.
“He could have taken responsibility for his actions and realized that this was harmful to some of his students that are within his class,” said Cook, the undergrad who claimed the film affected her. “Instead, he tried to make excuses. Instead of just apologizing for it, he tried to downplay the fact that the entire situation happened in the first place.”
One graduate student told the Daily that graduate students heard about the incident and started reaching out to undergraduates for moral support.
“It was sort of a protective reaction from the grad students, like ‘what can we do to help the undergraduates? What do they need?’” the student said. “Clearly they’re not going to be in a room with [Sheng] anytime soon.”
On September 23, 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduate composition students, and nine members of the school’s staff and faculty sent a letter to dean Grier further complaining about Sheng’s showing of the film, even though he had now apologized twice.
“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, according to the Daily. “The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.”
The letter demanded Sheng be removed from teaching the undergraduate composition seminar, even though the actions up to this point clearly got the point across.
When Sheng heard about the letter – three weeks after he had shown the movie in class – he stepped down from teaching the seminar. As the Daily noted, Sheng said he was “still teaching students in his studio, serving other departmental and school-wide duties and working on research projects.”
The graduate student who told the Daily that they reached out to undergrads for moral support said that Sheng not teaching the seminars was “the bare minimum” and said they wished he had been punished further.
“I feel like the thing that we all actually needed [was] a true and honest and genuine understanding that he did something wrong, not just [him] trying to defend himself,” the graduate student told the outlet. “I feel like there’s still a lack of trust there because none of us think he is actually sorry.”
The Daily Wire is one of America’s fastest-growing conservative media companies and counter-cultural outlets for news, opinion, and entertainment. Get inside access to The Daily Wire by becoming a member.