If you know me, you know that one of my favorite pastimes is going to the movies, preferably alone. I often refer to the theatre as “my happy place.” It’s a place where, yes, I can escape my reality momentarily, but more so live in the juxtaposition of my world and the one I’m watching on the screen. Art imitates life and life imitates art and there’s something magical about experiencing the marriage of the two. I go to the movies often because I want to to laugh, I want to cry, I want to think, I want to dream… If I could bottle up the feeling I get as I settle into my seat, the lights dim, and the first preview starts, I would. I would bottle it and drink it every morning like a doctor ordered prescription. To me, the movies hold a magic that remind me of how exciting it is to be alive, to be human. I love it.
Recently, my parents and I went to see Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the film, TGS is a bio-musical that somewhat details the life and early career of P.T. Barnum, the man we know and love as the “founder” of the American Circus. Barnum was a lover of the arts, entertainment, hoaxes, the peculiar, and certainly a lover of money. Born a poor boy, Barnum worked hard to build a life for himself and his family, most notably via a show starring men and women that were considered community pariahs.
With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, The Greatest Showman, elevates the exciting and highlights the hideous. A movie released at the end of a polarizing political year, the messages it communicates are ones of inclusion, family, love, and friendship. In many ways, TGS drips with a classic rags to riches plot, akin to the Cinderella story our country loves to rally behind. The scenes pull at your heartstrings. As an audience member your heart soars when Barnum marries his childhood sweetheart, when he creatively builds a present for his daughter’s birthday after he loses his job, when patrons attend his show and give a standing ovation. And how would you not? Hope lives in our core and we believe a little more that maybe—just maybe—we can make it through this thing called life if there’s evidence of someone else’s hope coming to fruition, even if it’s just on a movie screen. We all want a hero we can root for, someone we can cheer on, someone we want to do good. Early on in the film, Hugh Jackman (Barnum), slips into this role. With vocals and acting, that I think surpass his last Christmas blockbuster, Les Miserables, Jackman convinces the audience that “…the world becomes a fantasy/ and you’re more than you could ever be/ ‘cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open/ so, come alive!” per the pivotal fourth number in the film, “Come Alive.”
However, while the spotlight obviously shines and Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum, I believe the real heroes lie in the characters that star in the circus—The Fattest Man, The Tallest Man on Earth, Dog Boy, an African American brother and sister trapeze artist pair, The Bearded Lady, among others. Without them, Barnum’s show falls flat. When trying to get a loan from the bank to open his show he says, “people are fascinated by the unusual and the macabre.” Of course, watching this, I’m torn. The saying is trustworthy, people are fascinated by the unusual, but these “unusuals” are people, people being put on display for the entertainment of others. Barnum’s character puts it this way, “…people are going to be laughing anyway, so you might as well get paid, right?” It’s a fascinating scenario, to exploit the odd and yet simultaneously give them a place to belong.
What is so beautiful about these “unusuals” though is that while Barnum gives them a platform, they take that platform and make it home all on their own. It’s almost as if they take back what it means to be exploited. Together they form a family and accept one another. Each night they come together and put on a show that brings joy to an audience of curious, skeptical people. How? By celebrating exactly who they are, no apologies. There is a particular moment in the film when this theme shines brilliantly. As not to spoil the build up or it’s impact (because you should most certainly go see this film for yourself), I won’t go into detail, but I will quote the second verse and chorus of This Is Me, the song that director Michael Gracey considers the movies’ anthem:
Another round of bullets hits my skin /Well, fire away ’cause today, I won’t let the shame sink in / We are bursting through the barricades / And reaching for the sun (we are warriors) /Yeah, that’s what we’ve become
Won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down/ Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out/ I am brave, I am bruised/ I am who I’m meant to be, this is me/ Look out ’cause here I come/ And I’m marching on to the beat I drum/ I’m not scared to be seen/ I make no apologies, this is me
The first time I saw the film (yes, I saw it twice within a 3 day period. It’s fine.), I cried. I cried the second time, too, actually. If I’m being honest, it’s hard for me to listen to the song and not get emotional. I couldn’t help it. This anthem wasn’t just for the characters in the movie, it was for the viewers as well. It was for the teen that’s long been ashamed of his/her body image, it was for the kid that would rather sing than shoot hoops, it was for the person that’s been picked incessantly, it was for those that have never felt like they fit in anywhere. It was for me, a young, black, Christian woman learning what it means to be proud of who she is. This song, as well as the film itself, is truly “a celebration of humanity” as stated by one of the theatre critics in the movie.
In its essence, what TGS communicates, isn’t a message of fitting in, per se. It’s message is more about finding a place in the world to call your own, a place where you feel safe to unashamedly be who you are—human, uniqueness and all. I left the theatre proud and inspired. Proud to be human and inspired not to hide that.
Entering the theatre human, but leaving proud to be so is a great feeling. As I took to social media to sing The Greatest Praises, I commented to a friend about how timely it was for the movie to be released at Christmas. Sure, the aforementioned themes of acceptance and family fit in well with the holiday season, but as Christian I couldn’t help but whisper a silent prayer of thanks. Christmas is the day that we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the day we marvel at the dual nature of our Savior–God and man. He is a Savior that empathizes with our human condition not only because he created it, but because he lived it. He understands what it means to be human and celebrates that our humanity reflects his nature. Together, we are broken fragments of his glory, created for his good pleasure.
It was both empowering and convicting to watch a spectacular joining of peoples of all shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds coming together to create something beautiful. Sometimes it takes a dark room, popcorn, and a spectacular movie with lively music and striking colors to remind us of who we are. We are brave. We are bruised. We are loved. We are human.