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Entertainment Weekly

Movies

I feel like The Greatest Showman is taking some creative liberties

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The new trailer for The Greatest Showman debuted on Monday. Did you miss it? Let’s fill you in: Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, a handsome family man who pulls himself up from his bootstraps by starting a circus with the theme of acceptance. Also, it’s a musical.

Set to a song that seems better suited for a movie where a 13-year-old is somehow able to run for Congress (“I am not a stranger to the dark!”), Jackman gathers a coterie of outcasts to shock the upper class with how proud they all are of being different.

But, as you’re almost certainly aware, P.T. Barnum was a real man, a business-owner turned politician who lived an exciting life, by all accounts, but not a life that would be a natural fit for an inspiring major-key sing-a-long without some heavy massaging.

This isn’t to say I don’t understand creative liberties or the frequency with which historical figures are sanitized for mainstream enjoyment — bending the truth about things is basically what made the real P.T. Barnum famous in the first place. And as someone who has never not cried during the final scene of Moulin Rouge, I will be the first to say I love a gaudy Oscar-bait musical. But in the interest of accuracy (or at least a general awareness of Barnum), it seems worth pointing out that the life of P.T. Barnum that we’ve been presented in the movie’s two trailers seems to have a few key differences from the things I’ve gleaned from a brief skim of his Wikipedia page.

Excerpt from P.T. Barnum’s Wikipedia page:

“In 1835, he began as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, claimed by Barnum to have been George Washington‘s nurse, and to be over 160 years old. Joice Heth died in 1836, no more than 80 years old.”

The Greatest Showman trailer:

Barnum is a down-on-his-luck tailer’s boy whose roof drips into a pot. Hanging laundry — preferably drab, off-white sheets — is the best and clearest way a movie conveys that someone is destitute and presumably Barnum and his family live in a sheet factory.

Excerpt from P.T. Barnum’s Wikipedia page:

“Barnum did not enter the circus business until he was 60 years old. “

The Greatest Showman trailer:

A young father trying to do right by his cherubic pre-school-aged children.

 

Excerpt from P.T. Barnum’s Wikipedia page:

“Barnum was a producer and promoter of blackface minstrelsy. Barnum’s minstrel shows often used double-edged humor. While replete with black stereotypes, Barnum’s shows satirized as in a stump speech in which a black phrenologist (like all minstrel performers, a white man in blackface) made a dialect speech parodying lectures given at the time to ‘prove’ the superiority of the white race.”

The Greatest Showman trailer:

Michelle Williams twirling in a dress on no fewer than three distinct occasions.

Excerpt from P.T. Barnum’s Wikipedia page:

“Promotion of minstrel shows led to his sponsorship in 1853 of H.J. Conway’s politically watered-down stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the play, at Barnum’s American Museum, gave the story a happy ending, with Tom and other slaves freed.”

The Greatest Showman trailer: 

Those people, the ones in fancy coats and dresses? Who cares what they think! We’re different, and that makes us special!

Excerpt from P.T. Barnum’s Wikipedia page:

“Barnum was notably the legislative sponsor of a law enacted by the Connecticut General Assembly in 1879 that prohibited the use of ‘any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception’ that remained in effect in Connecticut until being overturned in 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court Griswold v. Connecticut decision.”

The Greatest Showman trailer:

Zendaya!

 

Excerpt from P.T. Barnum’s Wikipedia page:

“Around 1850, he was involved in a hoax about a weed that would turn black people white.”

The Greatest Showman trailer:

“From the Academy Award-winning lyricists of La La Land.”

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