When they announced Ringling Bros. was going to be closing down the circus — a piece of Americana that has been around for over a century — I was in mourning. As a clown and entertainer myself, I had known a number of circus folk, and it was always a highlight of my year to see the white trucks and trailers parked along the street outside of the Norfolk Scope every April. I remember driving up to Washington DC once to see a friend on their off-year (did you know? Ringling’s Red & Blue shows were run off of two-year tours that traveled through the States, alternating which one came to town) and hosting him in Tucson on the other side of the country with an entirely different significant other. I remember one Christmas where three of my clown friends got signed on to circuses and being so incredibly proud of them and a touch jealous. I remember watching a couple of the clowns who had been on the Blue Show when they had that last show and put up a live feed of it on Facebook, and the comments were full of tears. So when they announced the Greatest Showman that winter, I was excited.
And to be very fair, it was still a spectacle of a film. The cast features an enigmatic Hugh Jackman as the legendary P. T. Barnum with Zac Efron making his first return to musical theatre since High School Musical. The songs were written by the same lyricists from the award-winning La La Land, and the costumes and splendor have all of the big theatrics of a Baz Luhrmann film. And as a period piece, it does a wonderful job of taking you to another world. But for a movie that’s about defiant progressivity and inclusivity, it misses the mark. And often.
We start the story with a heart-thumping opening number, our Ringmaster and hero in the shadows of the bleachers, complete with silent film era subtitles which, I must say, was a nice touch. We get the high-stepping horses, the trapeze, the elephants, the fire-eaters, all doing their show in a sawdust-covered one-ring big top. It’s a classic, vintage circus look, and it gets you excited for what is to come, and just as fast, the beauty of it all is stripped away as a fever dream of ambition to a poor young man. A tailor’s son. And the son of a person of color tailor, at that. They never address what ethnicity he is, but if I would hazard a guess, he’s probably supposed to be, what? Romanii/gypsy? Because we have him starting a circus and being a shyster and a thief, and that seems the most likely stereotype. You already have a bad start, here. We want to virtue signal that he’s coming from a history of POC and poverty, but it’s glossed over and implied. Young Phineas accompanies his father to the mansion of a rich man, who has a daughter his age he fancies. And in typical fashion, he makes her smile and Papa cannot stand for it. They even have a moment where the father outright slaps the boy, and the tailor has to stand there and watch his son well up in tears and be abused by this man because they are poor and…?
Alright. Not a good second step. You’re poor, and you’re the help, you are nothing. I can abuse you if I want to, don’t touch my daughter, and there’s nothing you can do about it. They set the stage for some racial commentary here, but they never step up to the challenge.
His father grows ill and dies. Phineas ends up on the street, stealing bread to survive and conning people to get by (reselling used newspapers, pickpocketing, slipping his letters into the mail carrier’s bag without paying for postage…) and there’s a glimmer of compassion in… Not a white person or a rich person, but what I can only appropriately call a “freak,” in reference to the midway freak shows of old. Because that’s how he seems to view them all — outrageous spectacles of the human world, who have it even worse than he does, and yet have more soul in them than the others? But this doesn’t seem to be a thing he pursues much, because he doesn’t think about this woman until many years later when he’s trying to come up with his latest scheme. He runs off to work the railroads (which I imagine is a slightly friendlier variant of being a soldier without the bloodshed, as well as a nice foreshadowing to the circus trains) and comes back older and with a little bit of money to go after the Aryan princess (OH BOY) he had fancied. Her father even gives him a snide, “She’ll be back. She’ll tire of being poor, and she’ll be back.” Quite frankly, the fact that he even manages to talk him into letting her go doesn’t really make sense, but this is a circus biofantasy, so we’ll just not question it too much?
This is a repeated theme of systemic racism disguised as a class conflict that has opportunities to address the unfairness and evilness of the system but instead uses it as a backdrop for flavor, and it puts a bad taste in my mouth. Over and over again.
“A Million Dreams” is a gorgeous song, and it is full of an esoteric dream for more, and to be very fair, he gets pretty far in his endeavors. He has managed to find and get the pretty rich girl who doesn’t mind being poor and loves him for him (oh, isn’t she wonderful for being so accepting? Good god) while he is still wanting the wealth he can’t have. He’s chronically unemployed (as someone who is neurodiverse, I know this struggle, but she is a bit flippant about exactly how poor they are — “It’s what makes our life so exciting, isn’t it?”) and yet the implication is that his personality is what seems to be the problem. He’s too big, too… Dare I say, colorful? Writers, this is not a good look. But he does love his girls, and he has that flair for showmanship and tenacity that they are painting as virtues. He gets an idea and uses SOMEONE ELSE’S SHIPWRECK as collateral for a loan. This is outright fraud, but he is made to look clever — again I say, a really bad stereotype. And his wife just seems to go with it??? He buys up a museum of wax figures, which isn’t quite the circus we were expecting, and his family is very worried. He celebrates a pickpocket (“I caught him nicking my pocketwatch”) and attempts to charm people into the shop (“Half price for anyone wearing a hat– oh ho, sir!”) and predictably, it’s not working out. But children, being children, offer him some interesting advice: your shop has too many dead things in it, Papa. You need something ‘sensational.’ (“That’s a big word.” “It’s your word, Papa.”) That gives him the idea, that he knows something alive and ‘sensational’ that he could turn into a profitable business (oh boy…) and puts up posters asking for “unique persons and oddities” and understandably, he does attract some interested parties.
This is where it… Gets a bit messy. Watching him talk “Tom Thumb” into being his Napolean is honestly a little unsettling. I know what he’s trying to do, and if he can empower the man, that sounds good, right? Well, sure. If you like white savior tropes, which is what this is. Barnum is the only one who is ever treating these “freaks” as real people, and he’s applauded for it. And when they suffer for it, he doesn’t do much to stop them. When there is a fight? He’s not there. He just kind of yells people off, and takes on the critics’ words and embraces them, using them for publicity. This is a sure sign that someone is paying enough attention to understand that this happens, but doesn’t have the experience in it to realize exactly how much that really fucks with you. The Fat Man (who Barnum bumps up from 500 to 750 lbs) seems easily obliged, but people who can’t change — the black brother-and-sister trapeze act, the also-black bearded lady, the albino lady, Thumb himself — are not so happy about it. He even blatantly tells the man with giantism, “Yeah, we gotta change that name” when it’s something Eastern European he can’t pronounce, and adds, “I think you’re Irish!” and genuinely erases the man’s ethnicity.
Ps, just in case you weren’t aware, that is racist as fuck. W.D. even straight up tells him, “You put us on that stage, some people won’t like it so much.” “I’m counting on it.” He is being positioned as this progressive, inclusive showman, but what he’s really doing is capitalizing off of the dredges of society for novelty sake. The writers dance around this dichotomy of being outsiders and freaks but also finding some empowerment and acceptance in the circus, but we’re so busy watching Barnum chasing rainbows that this never gets properly addressed or seen. And it keeps going like this! Efron’s character is a young man who is a playwright and from some higher-up families, and Barnum strikes a deal with him (in a rather spectacular bar scene and male duet called “The Other Side” that really is a tempting pitch and catchy as hell song in its own right) to “help me cater to the high brows.” Even as he is chasing their approval and dollars, he speaks about the upper echelons with derision and continually shows his boorish nature. They make it out like this is a class difference, but there’s a lot of undercurrent implications that are really unsavory. Again, as the riots and protests get more heated, his cast is harassed and all he does is try to corral them back inside — he never fights for them. Even his daughter is being picked on at school for his dishonest business dealings, yet his wife seems to be convinced, “She’ll learn to ignore them like I did.” “Well, she shouldn’t have to.” They make light of a girl getting picked on at school, while his cast is literally getting verbally abused and attacked on the streets, and it’s such a tone-deaf, whitewashed “parallel” that it makes me feel ill. Barnum might have some colorful ethnicity, but he’s white-passing and gets away with quite a bit by just being “poor” while the folks he is profiting off of don’t get to turn off their own presentation. They don’t have the luxury.
Oh, and just to make it a little worse, Zendaya and Efron have a forbidden love. I want to be excited about an interracial relationship in a period film, but it was handled SO POORLY! “Rewrite the Stars” has some gorgeous choreography (I’m always a sucker for ribbon acts!) but there is a lot of really awful lack of consent on his part. The song is quite literally about how they can’t be together because she’s a person of color, and yet he is constantly pushing her to do it anyway — he isn’t the one that is being objectfied, treated like filth, called a freak and “the help” and everything else. He talks about how he is “risking everything” to be working with the circus, but it’s the difference between a man of white privilege “choosing” to get involved in something that other people don’t have any choice about. He doesn’t get to hear the slurs and catcalls every day. He doesn’t have to endure that abuse. Yet he wants her to push this forbidden romance out of their safe zone and chases her and pulls her back towards him when she has already told him she wants no part of it. So not only are we going to be really racist and lord white savior bullshit over the genuine struggles of our persons of color, we’re going to add some sexual harassment and manhandling into the mix. And we’re going to paint it as romantic.
Siiiiigh… I’m tired, y’all. And this is only halfway through the film.
There are SO MANY MOMENTS where you could give the white guy a chance to be decent — (1) when Carlisle asks Barnum where to put the circus cast during the opera performance, suggesting a BOX, and Barnum goes, “No no, too visible — standing room! Acoustics are better there” (2) when Carlisle is secretly holding hands with Anne in the show and someone spots them, he could have held his ground and tightened his grip, but he’s a fucking coward and lets go — she of course understands exactly what happened and leaves to cry, probably (3) when Carlisle tricks Anne into going to the theatre “because I didn’t think you’d come if I asked you” (questionable consent again???) and when his own parents give him a tongue lashing about, “It’s bad enough you’re with the circus, but parading around with the help?” and instead of standing up for her, he just stands there and lets his parents abuse her until she leaves, only muttering a “How dare you” when it’s far too late, to virtue signal to the audience but not in any way that is useful (4) Barnum’s complete lack of loyalty as he starts to chase after his Swedish nightengale and all of the fame and money she brings him (even though it ruins him anyway, in every way) and not only disregards his cast of “freaks” but pawns them off on Carlisle to chase his rainbows…
Ho boy. There’s a lot wrong with this. His “freaks” are only people in so much as they’re another victim of Barnum’s trickery. His wife is made out to be so accepting, but we never once see her or the girls really spending any time with the cast that isn’t directly a part of an ensemble scene. We never see Charity (YES, HER NAME IS CHARITY) do anything to help her husband’s cast outside of being an audience member. And Lettie!!! Keala Settle plays the absolutely breath-taking bearded lady who has a voice that is so beautiful and powerful that she has her own award-winning anthem (the self-empowering “This Is Me” because Barnum isn’t fucking doing it) and is one of the first folks that Barnum collects for the circus, and yet she is perpetually delegated to the side as set decoration. She is brought on and used as a visual aid in almost any scene they can manage, but she doesn’t get any character development. Even by the end of the film, she is just rolling her eyes as Barnum does yet another ignorant thing. “You just don’t get it.” And he doesn’t! He has no idea what it’s like for them. He’s poor, sure, but he’s also white-passing and will never endure the things his cast has to deal with on a regular basis. Carlisle is only moderately better, but still has a lot of problematic behavior, and unfortunately, the cast has to deal with it because it’s their only option? I do love “From Now On” as a musical number, but the song is Barnum going, “A man knows who’s there for him when the shit really hits the fan. It led me back to you.” Yeah, go figure. Your cast, who was there when you were poor, is still there. Maybe stop taking advantage of them??? It’s questionable if he even does because he passes the hat (the encore to “The Greatest Show” actually has a really nice visual representation of it) to Carlisle so he can go watch his girls grow up. Yaaaaay, passive income as a business owner so you can actually be a rich white guy with your family while everyone else does the work… Truly the American Dream.
I love this film, it’s so beautiful and the songs are so catchy, but holy cow is it full of some really awful stereotypes, systemic racism and problematic white guy privilege that it just takes for granted. It was 2017 — if we were going to have some escapism, I would love for the fantasy to be a little more… Fantastic. When people say it’s not enough to be inclusive, that you also have to be “anti-racist,” this is what they mean. Hiring persons of color for your freak show is a great bit of virtue signaling, but if you don’t actually stand up for them and fight for them, it doesn’t really change much. I know Barnum was a scoundrel, but you could have taken the opportunity to paint him in a new light while you were being so generous with the colors and glitter. I’m just saying. You get an E for Effort. Don’t make the black guy be the first one to throw the punch, man. Not cool. Do better.