News and Commentary

‘New York Times’ Takes On ‘Blackface’ In ‘Mary Poppins’

With Disney’s latest Mary Poppins adventure – “Mary Poppins Returns,” starring actors Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda – racking up Oscar nominations last week, The New York Times has run an op-ed condemning the classic flick for being “bound up in a blackface performance tradition.”

“Part of the new film’s nostalgia,” argues Daniel Pollack-Pelzner at the Times, “is bound up in a blackface performance tradition that persists throughout the Mary Poppins canon, from P. L. Travers’s books to Disney’s 1964 adaptation, with disturbing echoes in the studio’s newest take on the material, ‘Mary Poppins Returns.'”

The 1964 adaptation of “Mary Poppins” starring iconic actors Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke includes a scene wherein the magical nanny gets soot on her pristine face. Andrews, playing Poppins, powders her face with more soot and leads the Banks children and Van Dyke, playing a charming chimney sweep named Bert, on a march across London rooftops.

Pollack-Pelzner reluctantly admits that the scene is innocuous enough, though he ties it to roots of blackface and accuses “Mary Poppins Returns” of evoking minstrelsy and keeping with supposed Disney tradition.

“This might seem like an innocuous comic scene if Travers’s novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature,” he writes. “‘Don’t touch me, you black heathen,’ a housemaid screams in ‘Mary Poppins Opens the Door’ (1943), as a sweep reaches out his darkened hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to quit: ‘If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door,’ she says, using an archaic slur for black South Africans that recurs on page and screen.”

“The 1964 film replays this racial panic in a farcical key,” continues Pollack-Pelzner. “When the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step in time on a roof, a naval buffoon, Admiral Boom, shouts, ‘We’e being attacked by Hottentots!’ and orders his cannon to be fired at the ‘cheeky devils.’ We’re in on the joke, such as it is: These aren’t really black Africans; they’re grinning white dancers in blackface. It’s a parody of black menace; it’s even posted on a white nationalist website as evidence of the film’s racial hierarchy. And it’s not only fools like the Admiral who invoke this language. In the 1952 novel ‘Mary Poppins in the Park,’ the nanny herself tells an upset young Michael, ‘I understand that you’re behaving like a Hottentot.'”

“Mary Poppins Returns” is even tied to a racist “scantily clad ‘negro lady'” character in Travers’s 1934 “Mary Poppins,” argues Pollack-Pelzner: One of these verses in a “Mary Poppins Returns” song “refers to a wealthy widow called Hyacinth Macaw, and the kicker is that she’s naked: Blunt sings that ‘she only wore a smile,’ and Miranda chimes in, ‘plus two feathers and a leaf,'” he writes, adding, “There’s even a straw hut behind Blunt and Miranda that replicates Mary Shepard’s 1934 illustration.”

“Blackface minstrelsy, in fact, could be said to be part of Disney’s origin story,” reads the Times piece. “In an early Mickey Mouse short, a 1933 parody of the antislavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ called ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,’ Mickey blacks his face with dynamite to play Topsy, a crazy-haired, raggedy-dressed, comically unruly black child from the book whose name had become synonymous with the pickaninny stereotype.”

“Disney has long evoked minstrelsy for its topsy-turvy entertainments, — a nanny blacking up, chimney sweeps mocking the upper classes, grinning lamplighters turning work into song,” Pollack-Pelzner says.

“In this latest version, Mary Poppins might be serenading Disney genres, outdated but strangely recurring, in the Oscar-nominated song ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go,’ when she reminds us that ‘Nothing’s gone forever, only out of place,'” he concludes.