Is ‘Mary Poppins’ racist? Professor in New York Times op-ed says chimney scene promotes blackface

Published: Feb. 5, 2019 at 4:45 PM EST
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By: CBS Local

February 5, 2019

(CBS Local) — A professor’s implication that the original “Mary Poppins” film was racist is not sitting well with many fans of the classic family film.

In a New York Times op-ed called

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner slammed the iconic scene where 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 linked 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.

Backlash on social media was swift, with many saying the claims are ridiculous.

Others, however, argued that it was important to learn the history of films.

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 calls 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.”

Also, he says the new movie is “bound up in a blackface performance tradition” that persists throughout the ‘Mary Poppins’ genre.”