Yes, Mary Poppins is racist, but not because of “coal-blackened faces”

This is the most ridiculous headline I’ve read today, and I’ve been awake a bunch of hours already.

Twitter Disputes Claim That ‘Mary Poppins’ Is Racist Because Of Characters’ Coal-Blackened Faces

This is in reference to an article written in the New York Times this week by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, an American professor who lectures on Shakespeare. On the face of it, he may know a thing or two about racist representation in literature. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

However, it’s possible to miss the point and come to the wrong conclusion even if the entire body of your argument is correct. This is what we’re dealing with in this case. The books on which the two Mary Poppins films are based (and most Western literature for that matter) is racist. America’s entertainment industry (as Pollack-Pelzner points out) is built on the back of minstrel shows. That is all true.

It is also true that Disney (the man and the company he founded) created and took advantage of racist conventions and ideology to produce entertainment. These are facts in evidence, and Pollack-Pelzner lists them handily.

On the other hand, chimney sweeps are always depicted as covered in soot. This is, you see, on account of the chief ingredient of chimneys being carbon, your honour.

Along with the British class system, that’s more than enough raw material if I was of a racist disposition (and considering that I grew up in South Africa in the 1980s, I’m sure I could think of a bunch of things right now) to associate chimney sweeps with black people. It’s what we comedians these days would call “on the nose” and steer clear of the association because it’s too bleedin’ obvious, guv, aside from how offensive it is.

Nevertheless, the argument put forth in the article is that this racist association was intentional in the books (I agree with this premise), and because the films are based on the books, this characterisation is carried forward into the films (again, this is a good argument and I agree with the premise). Where I disagree with the writer is that the characterisation in the film, even though it came from a racist origin, is also racist in the context of the film.

In the movie starring Julie Andrews, Pollack-Pelzner tells us how Mary Poppins, Bert, and the two kids get dirtied by soot, as is bound to happen when you hang around a man who cleans out coal- and wood-fire chimneys. Then Mary doesn’t clean it off. Instead, she adds more soot to her face using a compact mirror, then cavorts some more with Bert and the children, spreading racism throughout the empire.

This is where I am going to split hairs a little, but I have a point that I am trying to make, so bear with me.

Racism is awful and terrible. Got it? Good. Also, white people are hella racist generally speaking. We were raised that way. America especially has relied on slavery to build the nation. The British Empire committed so many egregious acts against non-white people that it would take several lifetimes to list, let alone atone for.

If the intention in 1934, when the book was first published, was to reflect racial caricatures in chimney sweeps, I could easily get behind that notion. Sure, it was 1934. P. L. Travers used language of the time (as Pollack-Pelzner points out in his article) reflective of racist stereotypes. Was Travers explicitly racist? Sure, even by 1934 standards. Was everyone else? You can put money on it.

The question then, as to whether the same racism was reflected in the film on which the books were based, is debatable. Were Travers a scriptwriter on the film, I could consider that it was intentional. So did P. L. Travers have input into the script and film production? For this I turn to the Internet Movie Database, specifically the page listing the writers of the screenplay. Sure enough, Travers is credited for “based on the books”. The two screenwriters however are Bill Walsh and Don Da Gradi. I didn’t have time to ask them before I published this opinion piece, but they would be hard-pressed to admit it was an intentional decision to blacken the characters’ faces in order to perpetuate a racist stereotype.

It is far more believable that this Disney movie, in the same vein as all Disney movies, was aiming for a wholesome, fun, child-friendly message.

Let’s examine the lyrics of Chim-Chim-Cher-ee (a sequence of words I never thought I’d type), specifically the part where Mary Poppins comes in at the end after we see her face blackened with soot:

Chim, chimney
Chim, chimney
Chim, chim, cher-ee
When you’re with a sweep
You’re in glad company

Nowhere is there
A more happier crew
Than them wot sings
“Chim chim cher-ee
Chim cher-oo”

Setting aside the accent Dick van Dyke employed for this film (he was aiming for cockney, traditionally associated with the working class), the message of this song is fun, that being in the company of a chimney sweep is a glad, happy endeavour. Mary Poppins, as portrayed in the film, is a strict nanny who brooks no bad behaviour, and yet she is willing to let the children in her charge get dirty and have fun with a working class man who exudes joyful exuberance in his work. He may never rise to the level of middle class set, but he is happy with his lot and isn’t afraid to share in that happiness.

It is my position that the message of the song, and the film surrounding it, including the scene in which Mary Poppins blackens her face with more soot, isn’t intentionally racist. While the character of the chimney sweep in the original books is steeped in racism undertaken and encouraged by the British Empire, and while white America benefited from enslaving black people and performed minstrel shows in black face, it’s a far reach to suggest that the Mary Poppins film is racist because of this scene.

Sometimes a chimney sweep is just a chimney sweep.