Achieving worldwide popularity, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN was one of the most successful films this past holiday season. At the 75th Golden Globes, the film received three nominations and won Best Original Song for “This is Me.” However, the film has received very mixed reviews.

As much as reviewers praise the film’s all-star cast and soundtrack, they also criticize the film’s artistic interpretation of real-life events. While THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is definitely a feel-good movie, many feel that the film didn’t do the true story of how P. T. Barnum created the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus justice.

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At first glance, it’s not clear if THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is just another story of a “white savior” or a true celebration of diversity. On the one hand, the film is a strong step forward for representation in media overall. The cast is racially and physically diverse, featuring actors that don’t normally have the spotlight. That’s what THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is mainly about: bringing people who are marginalized to the forefront.

“This is Me”

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN Trailer by 20th Century Fox

While THE GREATEST SHOWMAN primarily follows Barnum’s life and story, it also showcases the other performers’ lives, too. Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), an acrobat, and Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), the “Bearded Lady,” are main characters. Both of them appear throughout the soundtrack as main vocalists. Anne is a primary vocalist as often as Zac Efron’s character, Phillip Carlyle. They both sing in the main theme, and Anne is the main vocalist of the song “Come Alive.”

Most importantly, Lettie is the soloist for the song “This is Me.” Lettie, an unconventionally beautiful Black woman, is the main character with her own solo. She was one of the first performers that Barnum recruited. Initially, she was one of the most hesitant participants. When Barnum first found her, she was terrified that others would shame and humiliate her as they always had. However, by choosing to participate in Barnum’s circus, she found a powerful confidence within herself.

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Lettie sings “This is Me” in response to Barnum shutting her and the other performers out of a high-society gathering. In the second half of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, Barnum tours Jenny Lind, a famous Swedish singer. After her performance, Lettie and the other circus performers go to greet her. Barnum, knowing that the upper-class audience won’t like interacting with the performers, forces them out.

At this point, Lettie and the performers understand what’s going on. Sadly, none of them seem genuinely surprised. All their lives, people have put them down and shut them out, and they’re always waiting for that to happen. However, this time, Lettie leads a song of their self-love and confidence. While they are used to submitting to society’s cruelty, they chose to put themselves out in the spotlight and perform. No one can take that away from them again.

Interclass and Interracial Relationships

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN also brings other important issues to the surface. For example, the difference between interclass and interracial relationships. Not many films highlight how class and race differences can put a strain on peoples’ relationships. Although two people may love each other, it can be difficult to be together, not only because of societal pressure but also because of internal misunderstandings.

When two people grow up in very different environments, it’s hard to see the world from the others’ perspective. This causes tension in both Barnum’s marriage and Anne’s relationship with Phillip Carlyle.

Barnum and Charity

At the beginning of the movie, we see Barnum’s rough childhood. His father works as a tailor for Charity’s family (The Halletts). As children, he and Charity form a bond, much to Mr. Hallett’s disapproval. Unfortunately, Mr. Hallett sends Charity to finishing school, and Barnum can no longer see her. Still, the two keep in contact.

However, through this part of the film sequence, we can see the great disparity in the characters’ situations. While Charity lives in a dormitory with her peers, Barnum struggles to survive. After his father died, Barnum became homeless. In order to make any money, he resorts to unconventional methods like reselling discarded newspapers. Since he has little money, he has to sneak his letters to Charity into the courier’s bag to send them.

“A Million Dreams”

Through this struggle, the two sing “A Million Dreams” until eventually, they reunite as adults. Despite her fathers’ disapproval, Charity wholeheartedly marries Barnum. The two begin their life together. However, this also marks the beginning of their miscommunication. When Barnum takes Charity, Mr. Hallett tells him that Charity will eventually leave him and come back home.

This likely fuels Barnum’s anxiety over being able to provide Charity with a certain lifestyle. In many of their conversations, Barnum expresses to Charity that he feels like he hasn’t given her the life he promised her. Although Charity reassures him that she is perfectly happy struggling as long as it’s together, Barnum doesn’t seem to listen.

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His insecurities drive him to blind ambition. Faced with the opportunity to tour Jenny Lind and appeal to high-society, Barnum casts aside literally everyone. Because he grew up in an unstable environment, Barnum felt the need to continuously take risks. The primary way he was able to survive was essentially by swindling others. While he acknowledges he is a good performer in that sense, he is insecure that he is a “fake.” As a result, he seeks approval and validation from those who once scorned him, namely the high-society that Charity’s parents belong to.

“Tightrope”

While Barnum is touring the U.S. with Jenny Lind, Charity sings out her feelings in “Tightrope.” She sings about how she loves living on the edge with Barnum. Charity, much like Phillip Carlyle, had her life already made for her. She could have married a rich man and lived without any worry. However, that’s not who she is. She doesn’t want a “life that is simple and planned,” she wants to choose her own path.

In reality, both she and Barnum are very similar people. Neither of them minds taking risks. In fact, they enjoy the excitement and success. However, when Barnum begins to seek the reward more than the experience, they become more and more estranged. When he has enough money, he buys and restores the house he and Charity visited in their childhood. In one sense, this is a romantic gesture. However, it’s clear that he is significantly motivated to show up her parents, who live right down the street, rather than reminisce about how far the two of them have come together.

Ultimately, their relationship begins to crumble when Barnum starts to take risks alone. After the disaster with Jenny Lind quitting the tour and scandalously kissing Barnum, Barnum comes home to find Charity with her bags packed. He also finds that the house is being repossessed. At this point, Charity tells him, “I never minded the risk, but we always did it together.” Finally, Barnum realizes where he had been wrong. He was blinded by his insecurities and spitefulness and ignored a partner who ultimately accepted a different path in life than the one she had been given.

Anne and Phillip

The relationship between Anne Wheeler and Phillip Carlyle is a lot more straightforward than the Barnums’. However, this is because the difference between their lives is even more pronounced. Phillip Carlyle is a rich, white, upper-class playwright. He, like Charity, has his life set for him out on a silver platter. On the other hand, Anne Wheeler is a Black trapeze artist during the early 19th century.

At this time, Black people were still widely enslaved. Any sort of formal interracial relationship would have been completely unheard of. In America, interracial relationships weren’t legally recognized and actually illegal before the Loving Supreme Court Case in 1967 literally over a century later.

Even though both Anne and Phillip feel an immediate attraction to each other, they struggle to figure out how to be together. At first, Phillip avoids letting others see his affection for Anne, especially his parents. During Jenny Lind’s first performance, he lets go of Anne’s hand when he notices his parents looking.

It goes without saying that Anne is hurt by this, but not surprised. Later on, he tries to make this up to Anne by taking her to the theater. However, his parents ruin the day again, insulting Anne by calling her “the help.” At this moment, he chooses to follow Anne, telling his parents that they are wrong.

“Rewrite the Stars”

Their duet “Rewrite the Stars” completely captures their internal struggle. While the both of them love each other, they have very different perspectives on their relationship. Even though he is ready to commit to Anne, Phillip displays obvious ignorance over the hurdles they have to face. As an upper-class white man, he is naturally used to having the world. At least, he feels like he can overcome anything, even “rewrite the stars.” He feels empowered enough to attempt the impossible because he had everything he could ever need at his fingertips.

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Anne is obviously not so fortunate. She doesn’t have the luxury of feeling empowered. In all likelihood, she has had to fight for everything in her life and been denied even the most basic respect. When she first joins the show, she tells Barnum “people won’t like it if you put us in your show.” She is prepared to face rejection because of her race.

She was even denied the basic pleasure of watching a show by Phillip’s own parents. In that sense, there is absolutely no way she could ever feel it even possible to “rewrite the stars.” This is an accurate metaphor for how she feels pursuing this relationship. There is no way she could convince others to respect her, let alone them together.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN definitely does a good job showing the struggles that marginalized people had to go through; especially when it comes to relationships. The film shows that while peoples’ feelings can align, each partner can be on very different pages. The film doesn’t ignore the struggle that those in interracial relationships had to go through.

Another White Savior?

The main question is: how does THE GREATEST SHOWMAN portray Barnum and his relationship to others? Analyzing the film’s narrative overall, it doesn’t look like Barnum is written as an infallible hero. The writers not only show his faults and prejudices but also show him suffering the consequences.

Obviously, the writers leave out the more unsavory details about the real P. T. Barnum, which is entirely debatable as a moral choice. However, looking purely at the fictional story itself, the film avoids falling into the trap of being another white savior story.

Barnum’s Character

The main reason that it looks as if THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is another white savior story is that Barnum goes around gathering misfits and people of color for his show. More specifically, the writers portray him as someone who doesn’t seem to be prejudiced. When he meets Charles Stratton, a 20-year-old man with dwarfism, he encourages him. Stratton challenges him, saying that Barnum probably only wants people to laugh at him.

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At this point, it seems like Barnum backtracks slightly. He looks like he is searching for what to say and also reflecting on what he actually would have Stratton do in his performance. In response, Barnum paints a picture of Stratton wearing a military uniform riding on a horse confidently. Similarly, he marvels at Lettie Lutz when he firsts meets her, calling her beautiful. This scene is somewhat heavy-handed. Barnum looks all too confused when the women around her begin to laugh at his comment.

“Come Alive”

Still, it’s clear that Barnum wants to make people marvel at these “unique persons.” At this point in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, the writers have set Barnum up as a misfit and an underdog. His primary motivation is to prove people wrong, like Charity’s father for example. He isn’t acting purely out of altruism, he wants to put on a good show, and he wants to spite those who would look down on others. Barnum wants to force prejudiced people to change their view. He wants to make them marvel and wonder when they would otherwise sneer and judge. This isn’t because he’s a saintly figure. He has a personal stake in it.

Barnum clearly sees himself as a misfit gathering other misfits to prove society wrong. In this situation, a traditional “white savior” would be someone like Phillip Carlyle, someone from high society “deigning” to “raise” marginalized people to “his level.” Barnum at least believes he’s on the same level as the people he is gathering and doesn’t see himself as “raising up” anybody. In the song “Come Alive,” he is calling others to join him and perform. However, it’s their choice. He is providing the platform; it’s up to the others to take it or not.

“The Other Side”

The only person that Barnum talks explicitly about saving is Phillip Carlyle. Their duet “The Other Side” is primarily about “freeing” Phillip from the obligations of upper-class life. Overall in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, Barnum is someone scorned by “proper” society, yet he is a savior to this supposedly higher-class white man. Phillip is miserable and unhappy because he is dissatisfied with his conventional life. Barnum sees this and offers to give him some excitement.

At first, Phillip denies being “trapped” and claims he enjoys his cushy lifestyle. However, Barnum strikes a chord when he emphasizes that Phillip can live as his heart pleases if he turns his back on snobby high-society. He points out how Phillip’s life isn’t necessarily better because he’s richer. In reality, Phillip is trapped by convention and the smallmindedness of his class.

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Although this song definitely paints Barnum as a sort of “savior,” the end of the song amends that idea. Barnum first sings about “offering” a key, then Phillip denies needing a key, then they end up singing together about how they both, together, can “make” a key to unlock the cage. Ultimately, Barnum is never a lone hero or savior in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. He always must work alongside others to achieve their collective goals and dreams.

“From Now On”

The final song of the film drives home the point that THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is not a story of a white savior. For one, Barnum only begins to fail when he becomes more self-centered. When he begins to risk the show on his own and make selfish decisions for the sake of his insecurities, he begins to lose everything. While he created the show, he doesn’t actually own it in the end.

Although at one point Phillip tells Barnum that he is the whole show, “From Now On” decisively contradicts that idea. Stratton and the rest of the performers come into the bar where Barnum is drinking, mourning the loss of everything. Stratton tells him, “I knew you’d be here feeling sorry for yourself.”

Lettie and the others do encouragingly speak to Barnum, however, they don’t pander to his broken feelings. Lettie tells him the truth: Barnum provided a place for them and gathered a family. The circus was their home. Now, they’re demanding it back from him. He gambled with something that really didn’t belong to him. So, he owes it to all of them to give it back.

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Barnum is not a lofty savior for these characters and never pretended to be. He had a personal stake in everything he built and lost all of it when he started acting selfishly. The performers are grateful to him, but they retain their individuality and confidence. They don’t feel like they owe him anything, they work with him, not for him. This song isn’t about a blameless savior of misfits, but rather, a misfit who lost himself trying to be something he wasn’t taking responsibility for his mistakes.

The Real “Greatest Showman”

Overall, the film itself does a pretty good job of telling an uplifting story. The cast features several fleshed-out unique characters and avoids the trap of painting Barnum as an altruistic saint. While people can debate the heavy-handedness of some of the messages, the movie is a good step forward for more diverse stories in media.

Still, it’s possible to debate the morality of altering a real-life story this much into something deceptively positive. In real life, P.T. Barnum promoted racist blackface performances that promoted and perpetuated negative racial stereotypes. He also bought a slave and “exhibited” her for money by pretending she was the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington.

The film obviously left out all the nitty-gritty details about all of Barnum’s choices. When it comes to movies inspired by real-life events, there is an ongoing debate about the morality of leaving out the less than pretty details. In the case of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, the darker details would not have added any real significance to the story the writers wanted to tell. Importantly, the fictional Barnum is not being glorified in any way. In the end, the film is about how Barnum is actually not “the greatest showman.”

He passes the show itself and that title on for the future performers to continue.

3 Comments

  1. Jane Gealy

    February 6, 2018 at 8:20 am

    I enjoyed it, but won’t be rushing out to buy it on DVD. The way the soundtrack juxtaposed the era was similar to Moulin Rouge and a Knight’s Tale and took a bit of getting used to, but on the whole, a good watch.

    Reply

  2. Susan

    January 22, 2018 at 9:12 pm

    Really nice analysis. Thank you for pointing out that the film does NOT “glorify” the character of Barnum, even if he does gain some redemption in the end.

    Reply

  3. Alice

    January 22, 2018 at 8:25 pm

    Barnum was not a saint but he did stage anti-slavery plays in his museum/theater, was an early supporter of the anti-slavery Republican Party, campaigned for the ratification of both the 13th (abolition of slavery) and 14th (Civil Rights without regards to race) ammendments of the US Constitution. He campaigned against the “scientific” racists of the second half of the 1800s that used pseudo-scientific arguments to deny civil rights to nonwhite people. In the context of his time period he had an enlightened view of race relations

    Reply

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