Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum takes a risk in purchasing an unwanted American Museum to display all kinds of oddities. With each success of his shows, he emerges seemingly unscathed through furor on his “freaks” and his ego emboldened as he rose through ranks within the high-class elite of Manhattan. It was a rags-to-riches story hinged on the trappings of high ambitions and overall a message of acceptance.
While the audience may generally understand P.T. Barnum’s rise and fall (and rise again) on screen, there was much to be said about the real P.T. Barnum. Yes, he was a very real person.
“…he was just a misguided man at an indelicate time lacking today’s heightened self-awareness of encompassing social injustices.”
Although the movie dazzled us with catchy songs and amazing dance numbers, underlying facts cannot be ignored: the exploitation by P.T. Barnum of his show’s “freaks” and possible animal abuse for the sake of entertainment. The movie rides along the message of acceptance and inclusivity by heavily idealizing a man who would have been eaten alive by social justice warriors of today.
“I would like to think that too, that the real P.T. Barnum upon realizing his mistakes, decided to celebrate human diversity instead and foster an inclusive community for all. And that is what the movie, The Greatest Showman wants us to know and celebrate too.”
P.T. Barnum was born in 1810 and lived to be 80. He lived through the slavery era and through Abraham Lincoln’s term. Even at a young age, P.T. Barnum had possessed an entrepreneurial spirit, venturing into many kinds of businesses. However, he got his real start by orchestrating a hoax. He bought an old frail blind slave and billed her as the late first president of the U.S., George Washington’s, 161-year-old-nurse (just to be clear, she was absolutely not). She died a year later. What was even more appalling was that he chose to unveil the hoax by staging a public autopsy upon the deceased slave, therefore letting the public know that she was in fact only 80 years old. Not-so-fun fact, the audience paid an entrance fee of 50 cents each person. He made a profit out of a slave’s dead body.
He further went on to carry out shows involving white people putting on blackface and creating more hoaxes, thus earning him the title of “The Prince Of Humbug.” To be fair, there was not much to do back in the 1800’s during P.T. Barnum’s time, so really no subject matter was left untouched by entertainers.
You might ask yourself then, how could Hollywood greenlight such a happy, feel-good story based on this man and his disturbing past? Well, here comes the part where we find out that back in the U.S., he was a big supporter of abolishing slavery! He became “one of the legislature’s most impassioned advocates of African American equality and voting rights,” (Evan Andrews, History Channel 2015). So, it’s safe to assume he was just a misguided man at an indelicate time lacking today’s heightened self-awareness of encompassing social injustices.
I would like to think that too, that the real P.T. Barnum, upon realizing his mistakes, decided to celebrate human diversity instead and foster an inclusive community for those left unwanted by society. And that is what the movie, The Greatest Showman, wants us to know and celebrate too.
Songs like, “This Is Me,” resonates with parts of us that feel unwanted by our communities. “Rewrite The Stars” lets us know that we can change the feeling of being unwanted and perhaps forge a path where all parts of us can feel loved and appreciated. Our desire to continually find something greater within and around us is captured by “Never Enough.”
“At a time when we are facing a barrage of uncomfortable changes in political, technological and economic setting, The Greatest Showman rallies us towards our dreams, telling us to be unafraid, unrelenting and always reaching out to the stars to rewrite them as our own.”
However, it did rely too much on making the audiences feel good that no sooner had the plot touched on the characters’ dilemma (navigating the intricacies of interracial relationships; unacceptance of people different from us; and misguided ambitions) than it was whisked away by a song created to give the general audiences something to relate with but at the expense of the characters’ voicing out their personal troubles. Instead, the songs only served as a display of the characters’ mood or general state of mind.
And yet, I could not resist being comforted by Hugh Jackman’s lovely voice and ultimately felt like rising from my seat to give him a standing ovation. At 49, he continues to shine on screen (and on Broadway too!), a well-respected actor who looked more like a well-meaning mentor to rising stars of our generation starring alongside him, Zac Efron and Zendaya (coincidentally both names start with Z!).
Ultimately, audiences were swooned by pop-infused songs inhabiting an age-old tale of a man who dreamed big; got big and ultimately reaching recklessly for the blazing stars, getting singed before landing back on his feet onto the solid ground as he finally realizes the most important things in his life: family and friends.
At a time when we are facing a barrage of uncomfortable changes in political, technological and economic setting, The Greatest Showman rallies us towards our dreams, telling us to be unafraid, unrelenting and always reaching out to the stars to rewrite them as our own. And that is why, ultimately, I found the movie entertaining, just as P.T. Barnum would have wanted to entertain us if he were still alive today.
If you want to read about 10 fun facts about P.T. Barnum click here.
If you want to read on its commercial success stumping the critics click here.