Black history in film

Elizabeth Shearer White’s ‘Othello’ screens at the Film Center.


From 1962 to 1966, Elizabeth (“Liz”) White filmed a groundbreaking adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” using the Vineyard as one of her locations. This film, screening on August 11 at 7:30 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, holds immense significance in Black history, and highlights the remarkable legacy of the cultural heritage on the Island. The film brings Shakespeare’s tragedy to life while addressing themes of race, identity, and love. It showcased the talent and artistic capabilities of Black actors and filmmakers, paving the way for future generations in the industry. 

White’s radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s text is the first and only film version directed by a Black woman, and the first cinematic adaptation of one of his plays to feature an all-Black cast and crew. White was an American independent film producer and director, dresser on Broadway, and founder of the Shearer Summer Theatre, which was active from 1946 through the 1980s — and one of the first summer theater groups on the Island featuring the Black residents and visitors of Oak Bluffs. The film was produced by Benjamin Ashburn, producer, manager, and founder of the Commodores. Both White and Ashburn are direct descendants of Charles and Henrietta Shearer. In a recent interview, Benjamin Ashburn’s daughter, Beny Ashburn, said, “Liz White and my father, who are cousins, came together and produced this film, which is really extraordinary. It was back in the time when Black actors didn’t have a lot of opportunities to be in films, and Black films weren’t being funded and supported creatively.” 

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the bitter ensign Iago manipulates the Moorish general Othello into believing that his new wife, Desdemona, has been carrying on an affair with his lieutenant Michael Cassio, with disastrous results. As described by the University of Chicago Arts website, White adapted the plot to reimagine the tragedy in a way that addressed colorism in the Black community, Afrocentrism, and the Black Power movement. Actor Yaphet Kotto plays an African Othello whose dark skin and traditional dress set him apart from the light-skinned and sophisticated New Yorkers whose social world he enters. In Shakespeare Quarterly, scholar Peter Donaldson argues that this essential change makes the play more viable as a tragedy: “Because Othello is close, ethnically, to the rest of the cast without really being one of them, the eruption of mistrust and rage is especially poignant: In rejecting Othello, the ‘Venetians’ are rejecting a part of themselves, a link to their origins.” An equally important element is described on the Oxford Academic website: “When production began in 1962, White was intent on using her landmark adaptation to assert a place for women within the male-dominated Black nationalist movements of the 1960s. By focusing on the (mis)treatment of women in ‘Othello,’ White links their struggle — or lack thereof — to the double displacement of Black women within the burgeoning civil rights movement.”

The film returns to the Island through the efforts of Douglas (“Stuart”) Gray, son of Douglas Gray, who plays Roderigo. Three of his godfathers were also in the film, and his mother had a production credit. In a recent interview, he recalls, “It was a family affair, and we all stayed at Shearer Cottage.”

In a follow-up email, Stuart wanted to share, “White’s ‘Othello’ and the all-Black cast shattered barriers and paved the way for a new era of inclusivity and representation. This groundbreaking production serves as a beacon of hope, reminding us that every voice deserves to be heard and every story deserves to be told. It marks a pivotal moment in history where the power of art transcends boundaries and uplifts marginalized communities, leaving an indelible mark on future generations. To see this film come to life told through the lens of Black voices and faces is a history I felt was worth sharing. “


“Othello” screens on Friday, August 11, at 7 pm, at the M.V. Film Center. For tickets, visit The event will include a Q and A with Douglas (“Stuart”) Gray (son of Douglas Gray), Shera Toledo (great-great granddaughter of Liz White), and Beny Ashburn (daughter of Benjamin Ashburn and CEO of Crowns & Hops Brewing Co.). Following the Q and A will be a happy hour sponsored by Crowns & Hops Brewing Co., the first Black-owned, women-owned, and veteran-owned brewery, from Inglewood, Calif.