Writing for The New York Times, Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner – a gender studies professor at Linfield College, Oregon – sharply criticises the scene where Mary Poppins joins Dick Van Dyke’s chimneysweep Bert to dance on a rooftop. The pair both get covered in soot as the dance number “Step in Time” is performed.
Pollack-Pelzner says that, while the scene may be comic, the author of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers, often associated chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricatures.
He points to one scene in Mary Poppins Opens the Door in which a sweep reaches out to a woman with his darkened hand, to which she replies: “Don’t touch me, you black heathen.”
Later, the sweep approaches a cook, who uses the slur for black South Africans “Hottentot” to describe the character.
“The 1964 film replays this racial panic in a farcical key,” Pollack-Pelzner writes. “When the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step in time on a roof, a naval buffoon, Admiral Boom, shouts, ‘We’re 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.”
After the article appeared online, many fans of the films responded vehemently, one person calling the piece “ridiculous” while another calling it “manufactured controversy”.
Pollack-Pelzner responded with a post reading: ”The chief reason I wrote this article was the hope that a Disney exec would read it, take another look at the forthcoming Dumbo remake, and ask if there was anything just a little bit racist they might want to rethink before it hits the big screen.
“Here’s one thing I’ve learned about the alt-right, after I wrote this article and received a zillion hate messages in response: they sure like Mary Poppins!”
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