Mary Poppins Returns
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I had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach watching this movie, which is disturbing in several ways. There is the content of Stowe's novel transcribed to film of course, depicting the cruelty of slavery, and the separation of families. However, in so many ways, we also see the struggle for America to deal with one of the shameful horrors of its past, and this was 62 years after the Civil War ended. If you've read the novel, you'll see that its basic framework is actually represented here, albeit shifted forward in time, but there are softening aspects which shift the tone. That was likely done in order to make it more palatable to white viewers, and southern white viewers in particular.
These aspects include:
- A Robert E. Lee quote on the evil of slavery, which is more than a little ironic.
- White actors playing all of the African-American characters, except Uncle Tom (James B. Lowe).
- The "typical" slave owner, as the movie puts it, is shown to be kind and merciful. The implication is that cruel slave owners were the exception to the rule.
- The extended sequence with Topsy, played in blackface by Mona Ray, is absolutely horrible. There is such blatant racism and in so many forms (she's idiotic, has imbecilic mannerisms, can't love herself because she's black, etc), that it significantly undercuts the anti-slavery message. It is just a shameful, shameful performance.
- By shifting the movie forward in time, the Union troops eventually arrive to 'save the day', as if all of the problems for African-Americans were solved in that moment.
On the other hand, there are many positives to the film:
- As in the book, the scene with Eliza (Margarita Fischer) running away with her son in her arms, across the ice floes of a river, is compelling, and really stands out.
- Simon Legree (George Siegmann) is played with the requisite cruelty, lechery, and coarseness. For that matter, so is the slave hunter Tom Loker (J. Gordon Russell). These characters are Stowe's, but I mean it as a compliment when I say they are positively Dickensian.
- James B. Lowe turns in a good performance, portraying dignity, faith, and stoicism.
- The scenes which have the whipped turning the tables and doing some whipping themselves are a little cathartic.
- It's a small moment, but in the scene on the riverboat when Eva (Virginia Grey) is handing out treats to the slaves in an act of kindness, one African-American girl (actually played by an African-American) turns away, with such a look of pain and forlornness in her eyes. How I would have loved to see more of this girl, and her story.
Unfortunately, it's the former set of things which were disquieting to me, especially knowing that 91 years later, America is still struggling to come to terms with its past, and with an internal rift that has race as one of its major components. So I sat there, uneasy, and as if I was seeing the evidence, not just of this crime against humanity, but of the inability to be completely truthful about it. It's as if you had a serial killer in your family tree, but you can't just acknowledge it, because the guilt and shame from being descended from great evil might be overwhelming if you did, or force you to consider what you might do today to help address the injustice.
Look, it takes a monster to believe that one race is superior to another, simply because of the color of their skin. It takes a monster to enslave human beings, to own them as property, and to subject them to all manner of cruelty. And it takes a monster to separate families from one another, to rip children away from their parents. The film is successful in showing this last bit, which was powerful, and had me thinking of passages in Elie Wiesel's 'Night', and frankly, recent shameful actions from the current administration. Did it really deliver on the first two? It seems to show that African-Americans are inferior, that they are childlike and foolish. It seems to say that Simon Legree was the exception, not the rule, that most slave holders were kind, and that most slaves were content. So no, I don't think it really delivers the message.
I'm not sure I can excuse it for not doing so 62 years after the war, when Stowe's novel was so much more powerful. I can't rationalize it as acceptable given other movies from the time period, or that the marketing department of Universal Studios was trying to appeal to southern viewers. I give the film credit for giving me a window into America, for making me look into the mirror, and for roiling all of these emotions in me. I wouldn't want to watch it again though.
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