“Circus” and the Portrayal of Racism in the West

“Circus” is an exciting, dramatic movie from the 1930s. The main character, an American named Marion Dixon, escapes from America (specifically the South) during the era of Jim Crow laws, as she gave birth to a black child. Working in a circus in the Soviet Union, she conceals the knowledge of her child from almost everyone. In one of the final scenes of the movie, her manager (a German), storms into the ring with her child, attempting to disgrace her. His plan backfires, though, as the Soviet people welcome the baby with open arms, declaring that they love all children, no matter what their skin color.

Without a doubt, the director intended for the film to be propagandistic. Though it’s certainly possible to laugh at the scene where the child is being passed about (for trying not to be racist, and failing by modern standards), more interesting is the critique on the Western world. The movie criticizes the backwardness of America and Europe. The man who attempts to disgrace the American dancer/circus performer (who escaped her own country due to persecution) is a foreigner, from the Western world. The characters who appear progressive throughout this movie are Soviet people. The foreigners, on the other hand, either come from a nation which is portrayed as not being progressive, or are bigoted themselves.
The hypocrisy in the scene, though, comes from a Soviet minority which is not included. Though the Soviet Union championed itself as a progressive country, anti-Semitic sentiment still existed throughout. Despite Jewish people living in the Soviet Union, they are noticeably absent from the scene. They appear to be one of the ethnicities or groups which cannot be brought into the fold, raising the question of how progressive the Soviet Union actually was.

One thought on ““Circus” and the Portrayal of Racism in the West

  1. I agree the film is obviously propagandist, and must admit I did laugh when the black baby was passed around the audience, both due to the ridiculousness of the action and the obvious promotion of soviet superiority. “Circus” seems to be a perfect example of socialist realism in film, in that the soviet union is depicted as a unique “forward-thinking” country at every possible opportunity. When the overbearing, abusive manager tries to force Marion with him to another country, she emphatically states that she must remain in Moscow, that Moscow holds her key to happiness. How was the film received in the Soviet Union? I assume the reception was positive in general, but there must have been some questioning as to how closely the reality of the Soviet Union related to the acceptance and open-mindedness portrayed on screen.

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