|Directed by||:||Michael Gracey||Produced by||:||Laurence Mark, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping||Story by||:||Jenny Bicks||Starring||:||Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya||Production company||:||Chernin Entertainment, Seed Productions, Laurence Mark Productions, TSG Entertainment||Country||:||United States|
Like the impresario P.T. Barnum, on whose life it is based, the film “The Greatest Showman” dupes its viewers. It’s not that the discrete “facts” of Barnum’s life and work offered here are fiction; neither the man himself nor this film pretended to offer unvarnished truths. What the film also offers, however, is a depiction of Barnum’s supposed character and, in that, the musical is profoundly false — an engineered deception.
If "The Greatest Showman" were judged only on its rousing singing and acrobatic dancing, it would be a delectable bonbon, as long as one didn’t listen to the words. But as I chronicled in “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” the real P.T. Barnum (who earlier in his career performed in blackface) actually grew rich by exploiting his era’s culture of racial subjugation and enslavement for his own gain.
The movie is a retelling of the Horatio Alger myth, which celebrates a protagonist’s success as a result of diligence and morality; privilege has naught to do with said success in these stories, and the heroes are always white men. We are told to believe that Barnum, a poor, homeless orphan ascended to fame, fortune and historical immortality as the inventor of the modern circus based solely upon his unique vision, intelligence and relentless industry.
The unvarying formula of the Horatio Alger novels often incorporates evidence of the aspirant’s moral superiority as well, which is why were are constantly reminded of Barnum’s “nobility” in the movie — his kindness, sympathy and zeal for preserving the humanity and autonomy of his “freaks.”