Review: “The Greatest Showman” is full of lies, but offers metaphor for giving marginalized a voice

By Luke Hertzler – News & Features Editor

“Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for.”

That’s the phrase that starts it all. The phrase that pulls you in.

“So tell me do you wanna go? Where it’s covered in all the colored lights. Where the runaways are running the night. Impossible comes true, it’s taking over you. Oh, this is the greatest show.”

“The Greatest Showman” came into theatres December 8, 2017 and recently was nominated for three Golden Globes.

“The Greatest Showman” though, completely misrepresents P.T. Barnum, glorifying his life and legacy. To be honest, he wasn’t a great and wonderful man, as Hugh Jackman portrays. The movie whitewashes Barnum’s wrongdoings, specifically those involving the exploitation of marginalized people.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, born in Bethel, Connecticut started off as a lowly boy from the countryside, but through his years he worked to become the showman showcased in the film. Through “brilliant marketing tactics and less-than-upstanding business practices, Barnum had truly arrived.” He was a creative man who could create over-the-top productions, but often it involved a lack of ethics and embarrassed those on display. Barnum “trafficked” in a “crass” menagerie to be his show.

At age 25, Barnum gained the rights to rent an elderly, slave woman named Joice Heth who people claimed was 161 years old and the “mammy” of George Washington.

This was the beginning of Barnum’s misuse of minorities. He went on tour with Heth for awhile, concocting a new story about her each place they went. Eventually she died, but Barnum had one more show for her: The autopsy of her corpse where people paid to come and watch.

Barnum continued with his displaying of “freaks” in William Henry Johnson, who was billed as  half black man and half orangutan, children from El Salvador, deemed Aztec, and Chang and Eng, real conjoined twins. Along with these live displays there were taxidermied animals and made-up relics.

“Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived,” said late historian Daniel Boorstin.

Was “The Greatest Showman” just created to depict a happy version of the real story, tiptoeing around the controversy of racial issues? Maybe yes and maybe no. But the one thing we must remember when going out to watch this movie is that it isn’t going to be a factual representation of Barnum’s life. We must look at the history, so that we aren’t naive and blind to it. Aside from that, we should enjoy the movie for what it is, the portrayal of Barnum it gives us and the beautiful music and choreography that entertains us.

I knew about the history going into my viewing, but I decided to put that aside. But I didn’t put it out of reach for it was good to keep it in the back of my mind while watching the movie. The history gives us perspective, and we can work at calling out instances like that and strive for a future that embraces differences instead of one that mocks and ridicules them.

This movie, unlike a biography of P.T. Barnum, is a fantastic metaphor for giving a voice to minorities. I cringed a bit at the beginning when Barnum sought out people to be in his show because it felt as though he wanted them only for entertainment purposes, but once the movie got going, characters explained that the band of oddities gathered together bonded and became a family. P.T. Barnum in the movie says, “Everyone of us is special, and nobody is like anyone else; that’s the point of my show.”

This ends up being a movie about family, risk, and diversity that includes a fantastic soundtrack as well. It’s a movie that inspires us to embrace our differences and give a voice to those in minority, the voiceless. If we as a world could embrace messages of songs like “This is Me”, then we would be better off.

I am brave, I am bruised

I am who I’m meant to be, this is me

“We are warriors” in this fight for justice and love. And I will close with lyrics from the song, “A Million Dreams.”

I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make

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