Film & TV

Review: The Greatest Showman Has a White Savior Problem

This year's award show musical shoe-in romanticizes the struggle of a man who exploited "freaks."

If you release a musical in the illustrious fourth quarter of the year, chances are you’re bound to nab a Golden Globe nomination – regardless of whether most critics like your movie or not. If things bode well, you might find even more recognition by the time the BAFTA and Oscar seasons come around. Before you know it, your sub-standard musical has a place in the history books.

 

Why is that? Well, musicals represent a breakdown of the elitist barrier that tends to surround Oscar-bait movies. For once, we’re not asked to invest in a heavyweight period drama or a movie about a political exposé; we can “escape,” and are allowed to indulge in heaping of camp spectacle. Movie musicals also have a track record of causing an effective emotional response, rather than actually being great pieces of cinema: they take the two most rousing artistic mediums, music and film, and stitch them together. But it’s worth nothing that they do so in a way that has been coercing viewers into falling in love with them for decades now. The Greatest Showman, the latest musical outing for Hugh Jackman helmed by first-time director Michael Gracey, is a shining example of that. Earlier in the month, it grabbed that aforementioned Golden Globe recognition, as well as a personal nomination for Jackman in the lead role.

 

In it, he plays P.T. Barnum, the founding father of the circus and an all-round great family man. The film paints his ascent from son of a pauper to a figure of high society, a place he reaches by following his dreams with so much fire that it gets him where he wants to be. So far, so Hollywood, right?

 

It does everything to entertain the viewer with a glitzy showcase of acrobatics and campy musical numbers, but what it doesn’t do so well is bring itself up to speed with today’s rejection of the dominant voice of cinema: those of hetero-normative, white men. As a generation, our senses are attuned to progressive, interesting characters and stories. The Greatest Showman, however, often feels agonizingly stuck in the past; blind to those who aren’t taking top billing and dominating the posters.

The Greatest Showman Trailer

The film manages to paint Barnum as a white savior of sorts, “rescuing” sufferers of dwarfism, gigantism, and facial disfigurements from being ostracized by society and turning them into show ponies, parading them around a circus amphitheater for shocked audiences to lap up. While there’s never a suggestion that this working relationship isn’t consensual, what Gracey loves to do is make us overlook Barnum’s twisted way of treating social outcasts to make him seem like more of an entrepreneur, but no amount of glitter and show-lights can hide that.

 

In one scene, as a roomful of bourgeois party guests raise a glass to Barnum at a female opera singer’s show, Barnum practically barricades the door to keep his flurry of cast members – weirdos, to him – out, excluding them from an environment they surely couldn’t be a part of. Nevertheless, as the film reaches its predictable conclusion, we see the group band together and thank him for saving them from being seen as freaks by society. No matter what he does or says, he’s always right.

 

The way The Greatest Showman presents P.T. Barnum’s story could be completely accurate, but since it’s almost 200 years old now, there's a certain amount of artistic license that has to come in to play. Why hasn’t Michael Gracey used that opportunity to help rectify the mistakes of his subject? More accurately portrayed the motives of a man who was fond of the phrase “profitable philanthropy”? Instead, he rids the story of all of its heinous baggage and turns it into a gleaming, more-digestible-than-day-old-popcorn musical.

 

I wonder what Joice Heth, the African-American slave that Barnum bought and subsequently showcased as a mythological entity, would think? Using her to launch his career, he convinced the world that she was 161 years old, and had been the first woman to clothe and bathe a baby George Washington. She made him $1500 a month, at least – that’s over $25,000 in today’s money. He then sold tickets to her autopsy, as if exploiting her in life wasn’t enough. Where’s her role in The Greatest Showman?

 

Feel free to gawk at The Greatest Showman’s dance numbers, or sing along to its songs, but keep in mind the story it isn’t telling, its romanticizing of a problematic character whose wealth was built on the backs of exploited “freaks.”

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