Should films rewrite history?

The Greatest Showman has received rave audience reviews, with its soundtrack hitting number one in the UK. The movie is moving, aesthetically pleasing and features some of the catchiest tunes we have heard in theatres in a long while. There’s just one problem — it’s based on an actual historical figure, Phineas T. Barnum. This is where all the controversy stems from, which is a waste. The film could have been great if it had not rewritten history and glorified a man who was, in reality, merely exploiting his disfigured workers for his own economic gains. Now, thanks to the film, cinemagoers who don’t do their research will have a shiny, family-friendly and idealistic image of Barnum in their minds.

But does this really matter? After all, the way people see P.T Barnum hasn’t exactly shaped the course of history. People having an idealistic view of a man they would barely have known about in the first place, is not the world’s most pressing issue at the moment. In my opinion, the show’s portrayal of disfigured people and circus acts is more concerning than the actual rewriting of history. The directors could have changed the name of the showman, made his background entirely different to the actual P.T Barnum’s, and the degrading presentation of deformed, disabled and black people would still have been problematic.

Another recent movie that has rewritten a traditional narrative of a powerful man is Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. It glorifies and romanticises Winston Churchill, a British politician who did do a lot for this country, but who was also an imperialist and a white supremacist. While, in Darkest Hour, Churchill is seen to be fighting against the Nazis, what the movie does not tell its viewers is that the British politician also said things like “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”, using that as a justification for colonialism.

Even if the movie does ignore these horrifying aspects of Churchill and chooses to romanticise his more desirable traits, one film is not going to change history and make people forget about all the damage that Churchill did to the colonies. The movie is in no way implicitly racist, so unlike The Greatest Showman, it does not carry forward the morally unacceptable ideals that its white male character stood for. Films that rewrite history should be judged in the same way that fictional films are. As long as they do not represent problematic ideas that could hurt any marginalised group today, films should be allowed to twist history into an entertaining narrative. After all, people go to the cinema to be entertained, not for a history lesson that they can memorise and take to heart


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January 2022
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