I was somewhat surprised when I read that the classic family film Mary Poppins has been branded racist by a US academic. He accuses Dame Julie Andrews of ‘blacking up’ with soot while dancing with chimney sweeps.
In a piece for the New York Times, Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner criticises one of the film’s iconic moments, when Mary Poppins joins Dick Van Dyke’s Bert to dance on a rooftop for the classic song Step in Time.
He writes: “When the magical nanny (played by Julie Andrews) accompanies her young charges, Michael and Jane Banks, up their chimney, her face gets covered in soot, but instead of wiping it off, she gamely powders her nose and cheeks even blacker.”
This is an example of the most asinine criticism I have ever read.
In their day, the Pamela Lyndon Travers books and even the movie were exceptional for their ability to blend “progressive” social commentary into children’s stories.
Don’t believe me? Sit down and watch the movie again or re-read the books. Mary Poppins is widely considered to be Walt Disney’s “crowning achievement” and was the only film of Disney’s to garner a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars in his lifetime.
The scene in question came about after the father of the children in Mary Poppins’ care takes them to the bank where he works. Here, Michael and Jane meet the chairman, Mr Dawes Sr, and his son aggressively attempt to have Michael invest his tuppence in the bank, snatching it from him. Michael demands it back, causing other customers to misinterpret what is happening, and all demand their own money back, causing a bank run.
Jane and Michael flee the bank, getting lost in the East End until they run into Bert, who works as a chimney sweep and escorts them home. Mary Poppins, Bert and the children appear on the rooftops from the chimneys where they have a song-and-dance number with other chimney sweeps, which spills out into the Banks’ home. An incensed Mr Banks returns home and speaks with Bert, who tells him he should spend more time with his children before they grow up. Jane and Michael give their father Michael’s tuppence in the hope to make amends.
The movie has it all, Dickensian names, the issue of women’s suffrage, the Irish fox that escapes the British hunt, anti-colonialism references throughout, a scene on labour reform, a scene on homelessness and the dark side of capitalism. It is all there.
To argue that the film version is racist is absolutely nuts. The whole of the rooftop scene and sequence is about “social justice”. The sweeps introduce the banker’s children to poor men’s lives and adventures with Mary’s approval. Along with her magic Mary introduces the children to an experience of fun and dance with everyday working people.
Listen to film critic Drew Casper summarising the impact of Mary Poppins. “Disney was the leader, his musical fantasies mixing animation with real-life action for children and the child in the adult. Mary Poppins was his plum. The story was elemental, even trite but with utmost sophistication, especially the chimney pot sequence crisply cut by Irvine Eugene Warburton.”
Good grief. Racist? Get a life, pal.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org