A few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see “Mary Poppins” was on television. There are a few movies that demand you to stop when you pass them while scrolling through the channels. “Mary Poppins,” I think, is one of those essential watches every single time. Because it is fairly rare for it to be on a cable network, it doesn’t get stale.
Anyway, it got to the point in the film where Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke, is working as a chimney sweep. His face is covered in black soot and ash, because, big shocker, being a chimney sweep was some distinctly dirty work. One thing leads to another, and we eventually have Bert guiding the rest of the main cast on a prance along rooftops. To blend in with the smoke and the other chimney sweeps, Mary Poppins, played by Julie Andrews, applies soot to her face.
Immediately, I could feel a million triggers going off all at once. Though I had seen the film more than a few times, the current racially-charged atmosphere inspired a thought in me. Within two weeks, I knew someone on Twitter would be calling for the film’s head because Mary Poppins is shown in “blackface.”
I wasn’t shocked to see that; just about two weeks after this airing of “Mary Poppins,” the film was trending on Twitter for being racist for its use of “blackface.” Right on cue. Bert was a white supremacist and Mr. Banks was in the Klan. Burn every copy of that racist, racist movie! It’s canceled. Thankfully, I’m exaggerating with the actual prose of these tweets. Although …
Now to be clear, I really don’t think anyone who thinks “Mary Poppins” is a racist movie has a leg to stand on. Are you familiar with chimney sweeps? That’s not really a job that lends itself to cleanliness. Were coal miners wearing blackface? Or any worker who dealt with smoke? These jobs don’t exist in the way they did back in the first half of the 21st century, but who is surprised to know that these jobs might result in your face (and your lungs, by the way) turning a darker shade. It was a side effect of having the job; not a political statement. “Mary Poppins” is showing what people who did the job looked like while they were working, which includes soot on the face.
Out of curiosity, I continued to look into the topic, and I found a 2019 article from the The New York Times by Mr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a professor of gender studies. Mr. Pollack-Pelzner is pretty convinced that “Mary Poppins” and the chimney sweep sequence are soaked in racist stereotypes and an undisputed, harmful use of blackface. He even pulls back to acknowledge the original “Mary Poppins” book series to support his case, picking out phrases and terms from the books that we would consider offensive today.
But here’s the problem with referencing the books: the movie isn’t the books. In fact, “Mary Poppins” has one of the most notoriously shaky book-to-screen scripts ever written. Have you ever heard of an adaptation, professor? The rules, themes and values of the novel are not the rules, themes and values the film adaptation needs to play by. Seriously, bringing up the book is almost always irrelevant to a discussion about what a film is trying to do, especially in the case of this specific film.
This is a classic case of putting two things in sequence to create a straw man out of something that isn’t there. It’s race-baiting to the worst degree. And, most shamefully, it actually distracts from real systemic issues about race. The left really loves to get tripped up on fake outrage about things like “Mary Poppins” being racist. They love to be offended on other people’s behalf. They love crafting impossibly high tests of morality so that only the most “virtuous” people in society can be in the movement. In the process, it becomes: If you like “Mary Poppins,” then YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. Except people who like “Mary Poppins” aren’t the problem. Neither is the film. No one has been indoctrinated into thinking blackface is cool from watching “Mary Poppins,” probably because it doesn’t even use blackface. Context.
The problems of racial injustice are too serious to be as simple as “Mary Poppins” or not. From what I’ve observed, anyone who is interested in actual societal changes doesn’t waste their time with micro-aggressions and moral high grounds and qualifiers. They want a coalition of people who can’t be ignored and won’t be stopped. And censoring or shaming a piece of art, I believe, is a terrible way to slow your movement down and dwindle your numbers.
Sam Zavada is a copy editor with The Standard-Speaker in Hazleton. He previously served as the news clerk at The Standard-Speaker, working with the obituaries and the community and lifestyle pages. Sam’s work in print dates back to his time at King’s College, where he spent two years as the editor in chief of the school’s newspaper, The Crown. Earlier in his time with The Crown, he worked as a staff writer and the entertainment manager. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.