P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) comes alive with the oddities in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. Photo Credit - Niko Tavernise
The Meadows School

Movie Review: The True ‘Greatest Showman’

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.the greatest showman tgs barnum 01 rgb Movie Review: The True Greatest Showman

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.

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Philip (Zac Efron) is entranced by Anne’s (Zendaya) trapeze artistry in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

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.


  • Reply Susan March 22, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    Having read several biographies of Barnum, I suggest you do the same, or at least reference your sources. While by no means a saint (certainly some of his attitudes – and those of most people of that era – were disturbing by today’s social mores), the stories of Barnum using alcohol to intoxicate Joice Heth seem to be apocryphal. The study of animal behavior and treatment was in its infancy in that era, and any poor treatment was more a result of ignorance than cruelty. Barnum was actually considered to be an expert who was consulted by universities and zoos. Upon his death, he left a large sum of money to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals. And it’s hard to blame Barnum for the failure of others to learn more quickly during the 127 years of circuses that ran under his name after he died.


  • Reply afdas March 22, 2018 at 8:56 pm

    Oh please!! I wish i could comment but i hav to give all my information in this overly sensitive world we live in where we have to be so “correct” and self righteous about every bit of entertainment we see that we will be ignorant of creativity and imagination – oh well, such is the life of a self important critic


  • Reply Movie Fan March 23, 2018 at 6:49 am

    Thanks for taking to task a movie that is so far outside what a respectable historian would consider palatable. Oh wait, it’s a fictional movie made for entertainment purposes, not a hard hitting documentary of all of Barnum’s deplorable atrocities. It’s a movie meant to entertain, not change the world of all the Barnums that remain in the world. But something is there that does change the world. We are who we are meant to be. No bully on her soap box is going to change fans worldwide from this inspiring message. This is us.


  • Reply shutup March 26, 2018 at 6:38 pm

    Nobody cares, people watch movies to get entertained and escape their dreary lives .. not to get educated on historical events. fuck of please. who cares? I certainly don’t. it was a good entertaining movie.

    I don’t see you complaining about Disney’s obvious fudging it’s disney princess stories. people don’t care, people don’t give a shit. all they want is to get entertained without having someone guilt them into feeling like they shouldn’t be

    Liked by 1 person

    • Reply skara May 19, 2019 at 10:18 am

      The use of profanity is not necessary, there’s no need to be that upset.


  • Reply Brammhi Balarajan April 4, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    This is a great article! It really opened my eyes to an aspect of the film that I hadn’t previously considered. I think it’s really important to know the full background of something before accurately judging it, and this article helped me see problematic aspects I hadn’t been aware of before. You’re an amazing writer, keep writing!


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