The essay by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, an English professor at Linfield college, argues that the original book written by P. L. Travers has a history of racism, which is carried through in the first movie and also subtly in 2018’s sequel, starring Emily Blunt.
“One of the more indelible images from the 1964 film is of Mary Poppins blacking up,” Pollack-Pelzner writes in The Times. “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. Then she leads the children on a dancing exploration of London rooftops with Dick Van Dyke’s sooty chimney sweep, Bert.”
The writer claims that Travers’ novels “associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature.”
He also calls out Lin Manuel-Miranda‘s character in the film for working for Van Dyke’s Bert, whose approach to cleaning chimneys, the author says, echoed minstrelsy. And he mentions that Meryl Streep’s character in Mary Poppins Returns shares a name, Topsy, with a black child that Mickey Mouse dresses up as in a short film from 1933.
Many of the reactions on Twitter said Pollack-Pelzner’s point of view was a reach.
“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!!!” wrote one user.
“Mary Poppins racist?!” wrote another user in disbelief. “Whatever next!!”
Mary Poppins, racist?! Whatever next! 🙄— Alexandra Malone (@MissMalone2002) February 3, 2019
“End of the world when Hollywood thinks Mary Poppins is racist,” added a third.
End of the world when Hollywood thinks Mary Poppins is racist— Amanda Eliasch nickname The Countess Ratbag (@amandaeliasch) February 4, 2019
Others, however, asserted that learning the history of Mary Poppins was important.
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
“This doesn’t mean you have to hate Mary Poppins. It doesn’t mean Mary Poppins is canceled,” journalist and author Mark Harris wrote. “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?”
For the upcoming 2019 Academy Awards, Mary Poppins Returns was nominated for Best Original Song, “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” as well as Best Original Score, Best Costume Design and Production Design.
Blunt was nominated for a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance.
Mary Poppins Returns is playing in theaters now.