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MicroReview: “Nightmare Alley” Whitewashes American Carnival Culture

A portion of my collection of carnival history books so you can see how serious I am about this topic. Some of these are out of print and tracking down copies was hard and expensive. But worth it.

I have been obsessed with American carnival culture since I was a kid and I’ve read so many books on the subject. One of the most extraordinary things about carnivals was they were the first racially integrated spaced in the USA, decades before the civil rights movement. So I’m really disappointed in Nightmare Alley and its director Guillermo del Toro, a man of color who made a carnival movie filled primarily with whites. This is a huge oversight and buys into a racist Hollywood version of history that erases the contributions (and suffering) of POC across the carnival board. Guillermo del Toro obviously has a love for the era and culture, so he must have known that huge portions of these companies were POC, and instead chose to whitewash it.

I did, though, really appreciate his take on the nature of the carnival geek and that had me absolutely sobbing. Really powerful moments there even though historically inaccurate: geeks were an entry level job since they required no skill, not an end-of-line role in the sideshow. I fully loved the fact that one of the last actors to work with River Phoenix (David Strathairn) and the mom of River Phoenix the Second (Rooney Mara) were in a movie together. That was poetry.

At first I was confused about why Guillermo del Toro would cast Bradley Cooper and his dead eyes. I look and look and there is nothing behind his eyes, in every role he plays. But then halfway through Nightmare Alley I realized the casting was perfect for the character. How far an empty man can go if he’s white and surface handsome. And if he falls, it doesn’t really matter because there’s nothing there to begin with but a flesh husk. Guillermo del Toro said he basically wrote the role specifically for Cooper, and after seeing the film that’s not a compliment, it’s a reading for filth. Del Toro essentially weaponized Cooper’s on-screen emptiness, and it really worked.

Overall, though, I’d give Nightmare Alley 2.5 stars. I just can’t overlook the whitewashing of the carnival. There was such an opportunity for some amazing representation and inclusion, which was totally squandered in service of a colonizer framework. That this was done by a person of color to boot was beyond disappointing.

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