Film Review: The Greatest Showman

By Jon Ferris

Spoilers, maybe.

I recently saw the movie The Greatest Showman, expecting to hate it. While the music was pretty good (variations on You Will Be Found eight times) and some of the choreography was a blast, the movie as a whole was so bad. There was no plot or character development at all, the main conflict of the movie didn’t happen until an hour and ten minutes in and was resolved in probably a record breaking sixty seconds.

But that’s not my biggest issue with the movie: I have two big problems. The first is on the surface, and the second is what is not addressed in the film.

First, The Greatest Showman is just a story about a male, white, able-bodied savior for people with physical “oddities” like dwarfism, albinism, or hypertrichosis. P.T. Barnum is shown as some kind of enlightened entrepreneur who sees value in people where others see freaks. He then proceeds to “save” them by offering them a place in his show. In short, he exploits them. He takes people that society makes fun of and puts them all in one place so society can pay to make fun of them.

This isn’t a story of disabled and ridiculed people self-advocating. None of the circus performers are fully-fleshed out characters or even partially-fleshed out, for that matter. They simply exist in the movie as assets for Barnum to make money off. (Sidebar: is that a character flaw? I have no idea. The movie didn’t do any character development for anyone). Even at the end, after Barnum literally abandons these real people that he had been exploiting to go make money doing something else, they return and say something like, “Everyone always gave up on us, you can’t give up on us too.” These characters were saying that they needed this able-bodied savior or else they would have to go back to their sad lives without him. What kind of message is that giving? What on earth? It’s 2018!

Now, you could say, “Well, Jon, it was the early 1850s and ‘60s! it was a different time! That’s how society was! It’s historically accurate!”

Oh, you want to talk about historical accuracy?

There’s a scene where Barnum is holding public auditions for these “creatures” to come and see if they’re good enough to join the circus; the message being that these people voluntarily, eagerly and excitedly wanted to be saved by Hugh Jackman. While Barnum might’ve at some point held auditions, I can promise you that’s not how he got his start. He had been showing off Annie Jones Elliot (Bearded Lady) since she was nine months old. He had been showing off Charles Stratton (General Tom Thumb) since he was four years old. When Stratton was 10, his father died and Barnum adopted him. There was no way Stratton (or Elliot, or anyone else in the circus, for that matter) was making nearly enough money to be self-reliant. Barnum was an exploitative circus master who took advantage of disabled people for personal profit.

“But Jon, that sounds like slavery!”

Okay! Let’s talk about slavery.

This is my biggest issue with the movie, because it’s what doesn’t happen. The movie completely glosses over, and in fact completely rewrites, how Barnum got his start. Barnum lived in New York, where slavery was abolished in 1827. In 1835, though, Barnum was able to use a loophole to “rent” a slave named Joice Heth. I just want to make it clear that almost a decade after slavery was made illegal, Barnum owned a slave. (It’s also important to point out that Heth was severely paralyzed and completely blind).

Photo from 20th Century Fox

Photo from 20th Century Fox

Barnum toured Heth around the country for years as, “the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world!” Heth was advertised as being 161 years old and as being the former slave of George Washington and his mother. Barnum would tell people that Heth had been the first person to put clothes on Washington as an infant and claimed that she had raised the future president.

Obviously, none of that was true. What is true is that Barnum found a paralyzed, blind, elderly, former slave woman who couldn’t advocate for herself, re-enslaved her, and turned her into a spectacle for him to make money off of. Even after Heth died, he charged admission for a public autopsy so the public could see that she wasn’t actually over 160 years old and could not have been Washington’s nanny.

Barnum owned a slave years after slavery was illegal, lied to people about what he was showing off and then charged admission so people could watch her corpse be cut up after she died. Only then was Barnum ready to move on to his next project. What kind of monster does that?

Now, Barnum was clearly exploitive, racist and awful. But was the movie The Greatest Showman as bad as this guy was? Yes, obviously.

The reason it’s a terrible movie is because it doesn’t at all speak about the appalling things Barnum did in his life. The movie picks the fancy parts they want to glorify and then rewrites history over the parts they don’t. This is extremely dangerous. The circus is about as American as high school marching bands. Everyone knows they exist, but people sort of take it for granted. Every school has a marching band, but not everyone interacts with it all the time. Most people don’t really care about the history of a marching band or take the time to seek out the history. Marching bands certainly aren’t the brightest, or strongest thread in the fabric of American culture, but they’re there regardless, and it would be weird if they weren’t. The circus is the same way. People just take for granted that it’s a part of American culture, but no one really cares enough to look into the history of the circus, or of Barnum.

With The Greatest Showman, massive amounts of people are going to be exposed to a history that simply isn’t true. This is a history of a founder of a piece of American culture, an idealist who saw past the ignorance of others, a rags-to-riches story, a testament to the combination of American work-ethic, ingenuity, capitalism, and the full embodiment of the American dream (I guess). But it’s not a true history, because it completely erases the racially-driven reality of the founding of the circus. And when one erases the racially driven history of some aspect of American culture, it acts to diminish the terrible and massive role slavery had in the history of America.

The Barnum that The Greatest Showman has dancing around is not at all the same Barnum that existed in real life. And when the ignorant masses are exposed to the lies the movie tells, they will accept it as true history because they have no one telling them otherwise. The Greatest Showman tells dangerous, racist lies as truth, and many people are going to believe it.