A professor’s claim that the original “Mary Poppins” movie was racist has not been well-received by many fans of the classic family film.
In a New York Times op-ed titled “‘Mary Poppins,’ and a Nanny’s Shameful Flirting With Blackface,” Daniel Pollack-Pelzner lambasted the iconic scene in which Poppins joins Bert on a rooftop for the song “Step In Time.” He accuses Julie Andrews of “blacking up” her face with soot while dancing with chimney sweeps.
“When the magical nanny 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,” Pollack-Pelzner wrote.
The Linfield College literature professor connected the scene to P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books, which he claims “associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricatures.”
“‘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,” Pollack-Pelzner noted. “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.”
“These aren’t really black Africans; they’re grinning white dancers in blackface,” he explained. “It’s a parody of black menace; it’s even posted on a white nationalist website as evidence of the film’s racial hierarchy,” Pollack-Pelzner adds.
Not surprisingly, the Internet heaved a collective sigh, with many grumbling that the claims are absurd.
Mary Poppins wasn’t flirting with black face! It was soot in their faces from being a chimney!!! Stopped spreading racism claims on non racist things like this!!!
— Jennifer Conway (@jencon1978) January 31, 2019
So some so-called academic had branded the Mary Poppins movie racist, over a scene where they get covered in soot (implying they’re blacking up?!). For crying out loud! You call yourself an academic? Not much education has gone on with you has there? Enjoy your 5 seconds of fame. pic.twitter.com/Cr9eNmUxct
— Michael J. Poulter (@MichaelJPoulter) February 3, 2019
Sean L. writes – “I see in the news that #MaryPoppins is #racist because in the chimney sweep scene, she dusts her face with chimney dust as if it was makeup. I always interpreted this as an expression of pride in doing a dirty job with enthusiasm, t’s being tied to blackface. pic.twitter.com/ai8XaFOyUs
— The Real Mike Rowe (@mikeroweworks) February 5, 2019
On the other hand, others argued that it’s imperative to learn the real history of films — even beloved ones.
This doesn’t mean you have to hate Mary Poppins. It doesn’t mean Mary Poppins is canceled. It doesn’t mean you’re a racist if you like “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” Can we at least agree that learning new things about a movie and its history is not a threat?
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) January 30, 2019
Pollack-Pelzner’s critique comes one week after “Mary Poppins Returns” was nominated for four Academy Award awards, including Best Original Song for “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”
He describes the 2018 version of Mary Poppins “an enjoyably derivative film that seeks to inspire our nostalgia for the innocent fantasies of childhood, as well as the jolly holidays that the first ‘Mary Poppins’ film conjured for many adult viewers.”
He concludes, however, the new movie is “bound up in a blackface performance tradition” that persists throughout the ‘Mary Poppins’ genre.”