The actor has painted the protagonist of The Greatest Showman as a cheerleader for outsiders, but the 19 th-century impresario saw notoriety by exploiting circus freaks
Everyone loves a good circus movie, and everyone loves Hugh Jackman. His forthcoming PT Barnum musical, The Greatest Showman, looks to be a timely festivity of outsiderness and inclusivity, with its bearded girls, tattooed humen, little people and conjoined twins.” His notion was what constructs you different builds you special ,” Jackman has said of Barnum.” You can be discriminated for that but if you own up to it and we start to embrace everybody then it can be what constructs life special and fantastic .”
The problem is, the real-life PT Barnum was not exactly a crusader for social justice. Like many pedlars of 19 th-century “freakshows”, Barnum was more interested in exploiting people than empowering them. He exhibited” Strange and savage tribes” along with exotic animals, usually consisting of bewildered indigenous people or fake ones in dress( his” Circassian Beauties” were given fake Afro hairstyles using beer ). He also exhibited African-Americans with birth defect, affirming their racial “inferiority”, and one of his earliest “hits” was Joice Heth, a blind, partly paralysed slave who Barnum claimed was 161 years old( she was half that ). When Heth died, Barnum held a public autopsy and charged spectators to watch. Something tells me we won’t see Jackman doing that.
Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump has been frequently likened by political pundits to Barnum. A professional bullshitter with a penchant for loud rhetoric, fake news and racial prejudice? He doesn’t play down the comparison.
Circuses and ” freaks” have inspired some of cinema’s greatest, strangest cinemas: David Lynch’s The Elephant Man; Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre; Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men. The best of them recognise that the sideshow is a distorted mirror of its audience; none more so than Tod Browning’s magnificent Freaks, built in 1932 and cast with genuine “freaks”. Many of them- like Johnny Eck,” The Half-Boy” and Prince Randian,” The Human Torso”- were former Barnum employees. Browning, an ex-circus performer, shocked audiences by portraying them as sympathetic humen rather than victims or monsters.
The real monster of the piece is the beautiful trapeze artist, who feigns love for a dwarf to get her hands on his inheritance, and is fatefully accepted into the freaks’ unified community as” one of us “.
If The Greatest Showman is a cheerleader for foreigners, and atoning for the sins of the sideshow, that can only be good, but let’s not airbrush history. Barnum and his colleagues were the problem , not the solution. They created and perpetuated ethnic stereotypes and cordoned off a swath of humanity as “different”. To truly do Barnum’s story justice, they would be better off making a horror movie.
The Greatest Showman is in cinemas on Boxing Day
Originally posted 2017-12-19 19:51:27.