Professor: Chimney sweep scene in ‘Mary Poppins’ promotes blackface

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Professor: Chimney sweep scene in 1964’s ‘Mary Poppins’ promotes blackface

Ian Gavan/Getty Images
"Mary Poppins Returns" has been a hit on stage and in theaters as it reprises the 1964 Disney film..

Never need a reason, never need a rhyme: Mary Poppins is out of step with the times.

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That’s according to an Oregon professor who wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that asserts the 1964 film, “Mary Poppins,” promoted blackface in the famous chimney sweep scene. The movie was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won four, including best actress (Julie Andrews), best editing, best visual effects and best original musical score.

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who teaches English, gender studies and Shakespeare studies at Linfield College, wrote that nanny Mary Poppins, played by Andrews and adapted from books written by P.L. Travers, “blacks up” when her face is covered in soot as she scrambles onto the chimney. Rather than wipe her face, Pollack-Pelzner suggests that Mary Poppins covers her face even more, according to the opinion piece.

The magical nanny then takes Jane and Michael Banks on a dancing excursion across London rooftops with Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke.

Pollack-Pelzner’s article comes as “Mary Poppins Returns” picked up four Academy Award nominations last week. He calls the new film “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.”

Pollack-Pelzner cautions, however, that the new film is “bound up in a blackface performance tradition” that persists throughout the “Mary Poppins” genre.

The professor, who graduated from Yale University with a history degree in 2001 and earned his doctorate in English from Harvard University nine years later, also notes that “minstrel history” associated with blackface and racial commentary is not limited to “Mary Poppins.” He says it is “a mainstay” of Disney musicals, including the jiving blackbird in the 1941 film, “Dumbo,” and a 1933 Mickey Mouse short, “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,” which parodies “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

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

Pollack-Pelzner’s opinion piece caused several fans of the movie to kick their knees up:

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