Even if you know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about PT Barnum, The Greatest Showman is not a great movie. It has going for it Hugh Jackman, truly a Great Entertainer, and he is determined to greatly entertain the sh*t out of his audience. And the musical numbers aren’t that bad, honestly. It’s no The Lure, the year’s best musical, but the song and dance bits are tolerable. Everyone can sing, everyone can dance—or, in the case of Michelle Williams, a professional double was obviously hired and regularly deployed—and while the songs aren’t especially memorable, most of them are anthemic empowerment ballads with strong back beats, so toe-tapping is easy. But The Greatest Showman walks into the ugliest, grossest exploitation and it becomes impossible to ignore the history butting up against the fantasy, and, unbearably, it involves Zendaya. WHO DOES NOT DESERVE IT.
But first, the movie itself, which is a mess. Showman covers like forty years and there is no sense of time passing through any kind of visual clue—it feels like all this happens in six weeks—and that makes it hard to track shifting motivations, especially as Barnum’s appetites fail to be satisfied. There are HUGE chunks missing because Barnum’s history is so f*cking repellant, and that creates a disconnect between the show and the tell of the movie.
The movie is showing us Barnum as an affable family man whose worst trait is the desire to be accepted by his snooty in-laws. (I do appreciate Showman for casting Fred Lehne as Snooty Father-In-Law, because if you want to instantly communicate “asshole” to the audience, you hire Fred Lehne.) But they keep referencing how people call Barnum a “scoundrel” and a “con”, and they cast the protestors of the circus as people who oppose the “freaks” involved in his show. (And not like, people objecting to the TREATMENT of the people and animals involved in his show.) We are never given a reason to understand why people might not like Barnum, beyond his friendships with social outsiders. The worst thing he does in the movie is have an unconsummated attraction to opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, with Loren Allred singing).
And this is where Showman gets ugly. Because people DID protest Barnum’s circus in New York, but a huge part of that was that he OWNED A SLAVE. New York abolished slavery in the 1820s, and PT Barnum BOUGHT A HUMAN BEING FOR DISPLAY in the 1830s. Not only was he breaking a law, he was transgressing against a hot-f*cking-button moral issue. Her name was Joice Heth. She was old, and ill, and needed serious care. PT Barnum put her ON DISPLAY to be gawked at. He called himself her “proprietor”. This, naturally, caused an uproar, which in the movie is recast as unenlightened troglodytes trying to drive the “freaks” out of their town.
This is where Zendaya comes in. Yes, Zendaya is amazing. She is a swan trapped in a sh*t pond, and she’s doing the best with the sh*t she’s in. She even has decent chemistry with Zac Efron! In and of itself, their storyline is far more compelling than anything going on with Barnum. Zendaya stars as Anne, a trapeze artist, an outcast by virtue of the color of her skin. Showman does not hide that, even in the abolitionist North, Anne is subjected to considerable racism. Efron stars as Phillip Carlyle, Barnum’s partner in the circus. Carlyle falls for Anne, but he’s a society guy and she is very conscious she will never be welcome in his world. The circus is the only place they can be together. It’s romantic and a little tragic, and it works.
But Showman cannot escape the specter of Joice Heth. She’s there in every shot, and the fact that Zendaya is put in a situation to present PT F*cking Barnum as some kind of Hero Of The Oppressed is straight up SICKENING. For all the liberties the movie takes, I don’t know why they didn’t just change the name from PT Barnum to literally anything else. It still wouldn’t be very good—for a movie set in a fantasy version of a circus it’s weirdly dark and drab—but at least it wouldn’t come with Barnum’s ugly history. At least then Anne wouldn’t be an uncomfortable reminder of the black woman who was Barnum’s prisoner with a job. But they do name PT Barnum, and Anne is grateful for the “liberation” of his circus. And that sits very badly with the very real history of Joice Heth. It’s almost irrelevant that The Greatest Showman is not a very good movie because it’s such an atrocious f*cking idea in the first place.