As I sat in the theater watching The Greatest Showman, I grew angry at the idealistic portrayal of the world of P. T. Barnum. While the plot-line does not promise to stay true to the accurate version of events, it is such a large part of the Barnum and Bailey’s history that the rejection of the corruption within the company would be disrespectful to history. Barnum’s shameful reputation was depicted throughout the film however it ran deeper than society’s perception of him in the movie.
As an Oscar nominee for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, and winning the same category at the Golden Globes, the movie was no doubt exceptional in the musical aspect. However, the positive messages of unity shown through the lyrics of those songs had no correlation to the real-life abuse and exploitation of his performer’s race and physical deformities. Unlike its representation in the movie, there was no turning point in which Barnum recognized his wrongs. This blatant romanticization of a man who sought commercial gain by turning other’s differences into laughable entertainment needs to be recognized, not skipped over.
His first major fault occurred around 1835 when he notoriously purchased an African American woman named Joice Heth. Heth was 81 years old, which was presented to Barnum as yet another thing to exploit along with her race. He enslaved Heth as exhibited her to his audiences as a 161 year old retired nurse of George Washington. As he learned she was prone to alcoholism, he unsurprisingly took advantage. He was known to intoxicate Heth privately so he would be able to abuse her further to attempt to make her look older to his audience.
In extreme contrast, the P.T. Barnum from the film readily accepts two African Americans, Anne Wheeler and W.D. Wheeler, portrayed by Zendaya Coleman and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, promising them a life of thrill and luxury. Though we would all like to believe this was the reality of events, the movie mistook Barnum’s fascination with the exploitation of his performers’ appearances for a character that spreads messages of equality and inclusion of those appearances. Everything done throughout his career was only to further his own personal gain, which was clear through his dealings with Joice Heth and countless other women and men he preyed on.
His abuses were not only carried out with humans, but also through his treatment of animals. Though the film’s use of CGI to produce scenes with elephants spares any mistreatment of the animals, it does not by any means excuse the treatment that still occurs to this day in many circuses. By furthering the notion that “exotic” animals are here for our entertainment, The Greatest Showman participates in excusing Barnum’s inhumane actions against these animals.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has famously bashed the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus after people affiliated with the circus admitted to the beating and general abuse with animals. Before the existence of organizations such as these, nothing could stop those in authority from handling their performers reprehensibly – meaning it is up to us as observers looking back to history to correct the wrongs done by men like P. T. Barnum.
I disapprove of the film’s portrayal of the events as a retelling that does not include the real persecution that occurred during the time. The ignorance is no better than the atrocities committed themselves. I urge others to educate themselves and those around them of the truths the film denies as it serves as the only way to move forward.