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The Greatest Exploitationist – P.T. Barnum and Glorifying Awful People

Hollywood often sets the truth aside in favour of telling a better story. Sometimes the truth doesn’t have that perfect three-act structure they’re looking for, and that’s okay. Alternatively, in some rare cases, the film differs from reality, because the truth is just too insane to believe. For instance, Hugh Glass of The Revenant (2015), did not crawl across the country after being mauled by a bear to seek vengeance for the murder of his son, he just did it because he was pissed at John Fitzgerald; Glass didn’t even have a son.

While taking these kind of liberties with the truth is traditionally forgivable, what I don’t think can be forgiven are the more insidious manipulations of the truth we sometimes see on screen. What I refer to are closer to bastardisations of fact than just manipulations, and they will often bolster up the reputation of a historical figure, while simultaneously eradicating any of their past crimes, and victims, from the historical record.

A perfect example of this practice can be seen in The Greatest Showman. As the film has yet to be released, these musings are all based on the trailer. While the trailer seems like an accurate depiction of what the film will be, please view this through a speculative lens.

The upcoming P.T. Barnum biopic starring Hugh Jackman is set for a Christmas release and will be a musical; two elements that indicate the filmmakers are going for a wholesome, family vibe. For those unaware, P.T. Barnum is considered the father of show-business, and was the founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He has a reputation as a beloved entertainer, as well as an entrepreneur and a go-getter. The trailer for The Greatest Showman paints him as a sympathetic family-man; someone just trying to make ends meet for his loved ones. There is a sense of wonder and charm in the trailer that one would expect from a musical starring Jackman.

What we don’t see is how Barnum built his empire on a series of cons that not only involved the exploitation of the vulnerable, but also involved the literal purchase and exhibition of slaves for profit. One of his most famous exhibitions was Joice Heth, an African-American slave Barnum purchased in 1835. Barnum advertised Heth as ‘The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World’ and told audiences that not only was she 161 years old, but that she had been George Washington’s nanny when he was a boy. This was of course, entirely false. Heth was in fact no more than 80 years old. She was also blind, almost completely paralysed, and Barnum’s property. As if her life as an object wasn’t tragic enough, upon her death in 1836, desperate to make more profit from his greatest attraction, Barnum exhibited Heth’s autopsy live on stage in a theatre. A surgeon performed the procedure in front of 1500 spectators at 50 cents a ticket. In today’s money, Barnum made approximately $19,800 from the live autopsy of the 80-year-old slave he had purchased around a year earlier.

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Slavery wasn’t Barnum’s only ‘business strategy’. His next hit act was ‘General Tom Thumb’, also known as ‘The Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone’. The General was a little-person who performed for Barnum. Part of his act was imitating people like Hercules or Napoleon while smoking cigars and drinking. The General was actually four year old Charles Stratton who Barnum purchased from his parents for $3 a week.

The Greatest Showman isn’t the first film to wipe away the gritty, awful side of the truth in favour of ‘a nice story’. Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) fails to mention that the iconic character was actually an 11 year-old named Amonute or Matoaka. She never had a romance with John Smith, and in fact she allegedly didn’t even like him. The film also co-opts Native-American culture while only gently hinting at tensions between white ‘settlers’ and the Native people. Disney eradicated the history of rape, murder, and oppression forced down upon Native Americans, and grossed over $300 million while doing it.

A more modern example of this practice can be seen in Straight Outta Compton (2015). The Oscar-nominated film tells the story of N.W.A rising up in the face of prejudice and racism, to become one of the most successful rap groups of the time, while conveniently glossing over the misogyny and violence against women Dr. Dre was committing at the time. The absence of this information isn’t a surprise, as the film was produced by Dr. Dre among others. It’s only natural that you would want to present yourself in the best light, especially considering the focus on the blatant racism N.W.A. faced. It could be argued that to include mention of these actions would detract from the film’s broader message, an effort to shed light on unjust violence against black Americans by the police and other institutions.

However, audiences are capable of understanding that an imperfect character is not a bad character. With the rise of the anti-hero, and the almost cliche ‘troubled male protagonist’ that we often see, it’s clear that studios and filmmakers aren’t scared of a complicated character. So then, why is it that the sterilisation of history still occurs on screen? There is one likely possibility.

In all of the mentioned cases, the history that was avoided was specifically related to minorities or vulnerable people. Whether it was slaves, Native Americans, or women, all of these cases are indicative of a larger societal problem that many would rather ignore. These aren’t the standard flaws studios can typically permit and that we see in films everyday (like the lovable criminal, or troubled superhero). These are enormous issues that still permeate through society. The racism and inequality that birthed slavery is still alive and well in America; Native Americans are massively unequal compared to their white counterparts, and a main cause of premature death in women is the violence of men.

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While the current thinking is clearly that ignoring it is more favourable than addressing it, this doesn’t do much good. In the case of P.T. Barnum, it seems as though the filmmakers were presented with two options. They could present the full truth, and tell a nuanced story about how The World’s Greatest Showman, and father of show-business, was more complicated than popular history remembers him. Or, they could tell a neat and wholesome story about a man who liked to sing and dance.

While the latter option is certainly simpler, when we trade in honesty for neatness, we lose the reverence and understanding of our past that is supposed to be what makes biopics and films about historical events so important. Hugh Jackman himself suggests that it is this championing of history that inspired his passion in the project. He says Barnum’s ambition and talent “led to the birth of modern-day America”, and sparked the notion that “you could be who you want to be, that it doesn’t matter where you’re born or what school you went to. And Barnum used a lot of imagination and a hell of a lot of will and mongrel spirit”. Jackman fails to mention Barnum also built his empire off the backs of humans he literally purchased. While it isn’t Jackman’s responsibility to singlehandedly educate the world on the truth behind much of popular history, it is puzzling that he and the filmmakers would indicate a passion for telling a historical story, and then clean it up to fit in with a modern idea of what is and isn’t acceptable.

Clearly this issue isn’t going away, and while I’m not suggesting every historical film be as heavy and traumatising as 12 Years a Slave (2013), there needs to be a middle ground. A story like the birth of modern medicine, as told in the TV series The Knick (2014), manages to show us the awful history of medicine in the west. It includes plots about Eugenics, and the ungodly things that were done to patients with mental illness (Google Doctor Cotton if you’d like your skin to crawl). Despite showing us the ugly side of one of the most valuable and prestigious disciplines in the world, there is always an underlying reverence for what medicine would become. The Knick manages to show us that while many suffered, there was something good to come from it. This level of nuance shouldn’t be hard in storytelling. Writers and filmmakers shouldn’t be scared of a challenge. And if they aren’t willing to tell the whole story, perhaps they shouldn’t tell it at all.

The Greatest Showman hits cinemas on 26 December 2017 and you can check out the film’s trailer here.

Ellen A.

Ellen A.

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