Diversity. Lately that word has been everywhere, from college campuses to all sorts of industries. It has specifically been the latest buzzword for anything and everything related to movies and television. It’s almost like everyone is trying to be more “diverse” — at least seemingly so.
The most notable popular dissent for lack of diversity on screen, in the last year or so, culminated in last year’s #Oscarssowhite movement. The hashtag, which arose from the lack of non-white Oscar nominees in 2016’s Academy Awards, led to a social media movement for those dissatisfied with the lack of non-white characters in film. People wanted to see faces that reflected the world they live in. They wanted films that didn’t box the stories of those in marginalised groups into predictable and often insulting tropes dating back to the days when human beings could be owned like cattle. Yet, for all the demand for new voices and all the support for entertainment that puts black and brown faces at the forefront of human narratives (such as Broadway’s Hamilton, which for all its shortcomings, helped make the conversation on diversity and inclusion cool and hip, but more importantly digestible for a rich, white audience) not much has actually changed. The kind of spaces that need to be made for acts that are as diverse as their audience is something that, unfortunately, no hashtag or one musical can orchestrate overnight. The entertainment industry has a diversity problem. That’s not new. Unfortunately, what feels new is how instead of this outcry making room for actual diversity within films (both in front of and behind the camera) and throughout film genres, it has instead made ample room for “false diversity.” This diversity is the kind where actors of color can be main characters, but only if they play the same sidekick roles to their white counterparts. The kind where actors of color are only put in leading roles if their image aligns with popular, Eurocentric beauty standards. The kind where non-trans actors are playing trans persons. The kind where disabled people, more than capable of representing themselves, are played by able-bodied persons. It’s the type of diversity that meets the minimum requirement for what can be considered diverse story-telling, while maintaining the focus of the narrative on the same characters we’re used to seeing in lead, speaking roles: straight, white, cis, men. And there’s no better example for this than in 2017’s The Greatest Showman.
The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and the ever so dazzling Zendaya, is, in of itself, a decent movie. Loosely based on the life of showman and politician, P.T. Barnum, it tells of Barnum’s beginnings as a poor, orphaned boy in New York and follows his successes in show business, as well as his personal and professional downfalls through song. It’s a musical that chooses to tackle an enduring and beloved American story motif: from rags to riches—but even in this, such a presumably easy mark, it fails. Somehow, though, that is not its biggest disappointment. Anyone who looks up the name “P.T. Barnum” will find information on a most despicable person and that is who the entire film is based upon.
When I first saw the trailer for the film earlier this year, I made the incorrect assumption that, first, it was fiction, having never heard of Barnum before. My second assumption was that it would tell of an origin story of the circus that showed an inclusive haven for its performers. After all, who would make a feel good, family film based on a truly despicable and disturbing world? I thought, based off the trailer, and admittedly the twinkle in Hugh Jackman’s eye, that like many parts of entertainment industry born out of the need to create art in a world that is unwelcoming of you at face value (such as hip hop for example), the circus began as a welcomed place for the mistreated and disenfranchised. With exposure and popularity, it would then be degraded by greedy capitalists looking to supply popular demand at whatever cost, leading to the exploitation and mistreatment of its performers (something I vaguely kne to be true about the circus). I could never imagine that its founder would be the Source. To be brief, I was willfully naïve and hopeful. Silly me.
The Greatest Showman in of itself is not terrible. Hugh Jackman, who plays Barnum is, unsurprisingly, charming (it’s Hugh fucking Jackman). Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer we have to thank for Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012), pulls us in once again with stunning visuals. The music is camp and exuberant. The actors are wonderfully charismatic; their voices meld together in exquisite harmony, and the dance numbers are just fun. This musical really wants you to have a good time watching it. It’s all great…that is, until you actually start paying attention to what the characters are doing and saying.
Barnum is portrayed as an overarching benevolent figure, a wonderful father, and devoted husband whose only negative trait is that he wishes to be loved by a world that constantly rejects him for his humble beginnings as a poor tailor’s son. Barnum’s mistreatment of his performers is hardly addressed. His need to be loved by the elite, leads to one number where Barnum casts his circus’ performers out of a formal after party after a performance by singer Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson), who happens to be the only act he produces acceptable for New York City’s upper class. Classism is his only rival, and his need to conquer it at any cost, even to the dismay of his family and his employees, his Achilles heel. His critics are the only ones depicted as close-minded, backwards bigots, who just don’t understand unique art when it smacks them in the face. They’re the racist, ableist ones, no one else, especially not Barnum. It’s positively nauseating once you read even just one article about the actual person.
Plot-wise, The Greatest Showman has many eye-rolling points. The rags to riches story which threads the entire movie is weak. In the end, Barnam just comes out looking greedy and reckless, needing to be inspired by the people he rejects, the circus performers, to pull his life together when he loses his investment in Lind and the circus building to a fire. The film doesn’t actually address ableism in the circus industry. It addresses racism so lightly that if you knew nothing about race-based micro-aggressions and, well, racism, you wouldn’t understand why Zendaya’s character, Anne Wheeler, and her brother, W.D. (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) feel uncomfortable when the circus is invited to meet Queen Victoria. It downplays it to something that you have to interpret, when racism at the time was incredibly overt culturally, socially and systematically, especially in entertainment. There is one other scene where Anne and Philip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron, attempt to have a date at the theatre and are interrupted by his parents, who voice their disapproval of the interracial pair and call Wheeler “the help”. That is as explicit as it gets. Showman never shows how Barnum’s first act was a black, enslaved elderly woman named Joice Heth. Or how he wore blackface. Or literally any other horrible thing he did or said. The Greatest Showman exemplifies where this cry for diversity leaves us. It has all the makings of a film that could humanize people of all skin colors, physical ability, and gender identity; people who have a hard time being humanized in popular media as it is. Yet, it never addresses the truth about the person on which its based and except for the curious (that’s putting it nicely) love story between Zendaya’s and Zac Efron’s characters, treats the circus’s performers as mere background dancers. Even the phenomenal Tony-nominated Keala Settle, who plays Lettie Lutz (also known as the bearded lady) seems to only be used for the very high notes in song. Tragic.
Showman does what is bound to happen again and again, if people don’t continue to pay attention and take issue. It has the diverse cast filled with the sorts of people you wouldn’t expect to get lines in a big studio film, but they’re really just the props behind the tall, strapping, straight, cis-gender white guy. It’s wasteful and insulting. So, I have only one thing to say about it and those who wish to create films like it: do better. Stop using black and brown bodies, disabled people, trans persons, gender non-conforming persons, basically anyone who you’ve seen come out on your Twitter feed or Facebook home page lately to demand better treatment in our world, as “curiosities” in order to hoodwink butts into seats. Instead, make movies about those people, movies that show them in their fullness, as the living, breathing, complicated human beings that they are. Produce these films, put your full weight behind them. Do not keep making movies about the types of people who, were they alive today, wouldn’t even see the people you overlook as human beings. People who exploit them. People who hate them all but for what they can do for their coin purse. Or if you are going to make films about them, do so honestly.
To be brief: do better.
-Afia wa Mwenze