The Radical Collective Action of Disney’s “Newsies” Is Still Relevant Today

Matt Hartman

The film is not without serious limitations, but it still serves as a powerful reminder that we can fight and win.

Roughly halfway through the 1992 Disney musical Newsies, the eponymous group of young, mostly white newspaper boys comes together in the middle of a public square for a song-and-dance routine whose chorus goes: 

Nothing can break us
No one can make us give our rights away
Arise and seize the day

The earnest and naive tones these words strike are likely to elicit exasperation in some, hostility in others. But, though there are good reasons for both of those emotions, I find the scene nothing short of invigorating. The song displays a mix of genuine commitment to justice and surprising arrogance about how easy it is to obtain, and, for just those reasons, Newsies is a film that merits critical attention. Though it may seem a stretch to look so closely at a 90s children’s musical, there is much in Newsies worth examining, especially for any who also have an interest in progressive politics. 

The film concerns a newspaper boy strike in 1899, and thus depicts the kind of labor-focused mass political movement that undergirds any socialist politics worth considering. Moreover, though the film flopped when first released, it became a cult hit throughout the 90s — helped by the frankly astounding fact that it starred Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall, and an 18-year-old Christian Bale — and was then revived for the stage during the surge of interest in progressive politics following Barack Obama’s first campaign, eventually winning two Tonys. In other words, this particular narrative has been prominent in the lives of politically engaged 20-somethings since their childhood (myself included). Alan Mencken, who wrote the film’s songs, even remarked, It’s like Newsies is actually owned by this generation of kids.” 

Some political hope, then, can be found in the fact that Newsies is a more radical film than you might expect. The central irony of Newsies is that it’s a film about fighting back against corporate giants made by the corporate giant. Yet the film directly addresses that dilemma. At the beginning of the newsies’ strike, they receive favorable coverage from a friendly reporter. Once the strike gains momentum, though, Pulitzer, whose paper they work for, forces a moratorium on all coverage. In response, the newsies create their own paper after expropriating one of Pulitzer’s printing presses. (“It’s nice of Pulitzer to lend us this,” one of their comrades says.) The newsies’ paper calls for a general strike by all the working youth in the city, which finally forces Pulitzer’s hand and wins them their demands.

Further, Newsies refrains from tempering the violent reality of a nineteenth century strike any more than it has to, to maintain its childhood audience. In other words, it doesn’t adopt the bourgeois morality you might expect from Disney. The film does voice worries over the use of violence to protect the picket lines through the mouth of Davey, a newsie only selling papers until his father recovers from an injury, and thus a newsie whose slightly better class position puts him at odds with the others, who are orphans. But through the course of the narrative, it’s not the orphan newsies who receive enlightenment from Davey; it’s Davey who comes to see the reality of their plight. He begins to take part in the melees with scabs and company muscle. When the film’s protagonist, Jack, briefly abandons the strike, Davey doesn’t debate him, he attacks him. Davey’s new worldview is depicted, at the end, by his participation in the symbolic roughneck, low-class practice of spitting in your palm before you shake on a deal — something he gawked at earlier in the film.

In short, then, the film’s central moral is one of collective, popular action. It’s filled with the exact kind of populist rhetoric that has been essential to recent political movements targeting economic inequality — including Occupy first and foremost. Newsies presents a vision of politics as it takes place outside of the ballot box: it glorifies organizing, the independent press, and self-defense, not the courting of powerful allies. 

The film uses the musical form to heighten this emphasis. The songs function as a kind of extra-ordinary speech, voicing wrongs in a way similar to the commentary offered by classical choruses. The dancing highlights the dynamism of the striking workers and their ability to drive society. (In this light, it’s interesting to compare the depiction of the movement of bodies in the musical form to the movement of goods within capitalism.) Moreover, the subtle fact that it’s only the newsies who sing and dance, not the capitalists or their cronies, ensures that viewers come away from the film with a impression of a powerful working class. 

However, the changes made to the narrative to bring Newsies to the stage undercut this moral of popular action, and thus raise a question about the costs of Newsies’ continuing popularity. Newsies the play features a number of inane plot changes (including adding songs, though not dances, for Pulitzer), but of particular note is an expanded role for Theodore Roosevelt, who was the governor of New York at the time depicted. In the film, Roosevelt appears at the general strike, and though the newsies welcome him as a kind of hero, the film makes clear that it is the newsies who won their demands, not Roosevelt. In the stage version, however, Roosevelt appears earlier in the scene, joining Jack and Davey for negotiations in Pulitzer’s office. Though the newsies’ actions brought Roosevelt there, the play muddles the popular action narrative by implying that the politician’s power is necessary to force change.

Compounding this issue is one that plagues the film version of Newsies as well: a complete erasure of the role race and gender play in the construction of class in America. In true 90s multicultural fashion, the film’s cast includes one black newsie whose race played no part in the plot; the same was true of the stage version I saw performed in Durham, North Carolina. Though Jack’s love interest in both versions supports the strike, there are no women newsies either. (The stage version does address women in the workforce in the person of Jack’s love interest, but the attempt is overshadowed by the decision to turn that character into Pulitzer’s daughter.) Yet to talk about labor issues or progressive movements within this country without explicitly addressing racism and misogyny is inherently self-defeating, and thus the good Newsies does is inherently limited.

Nonetheless, given the place of American politics today, with the Bernie Sanders campaign reviving a notion — though perhaps a watered down notion — of socialism at the same time that Donald Trump is offering a bolder version of America’s tradition of nativist racism at the same time that Black Lives Matter is making it impossible to not address the racism built into our society, Newsies offers a fascinating case study in the ideals underlying progressive politics. No film puts me in a better, more hopeful mood: if this film could be made, by Disney no less, perhaps there is reason to believe a better world is possible. At the same time, the film elides so much that must be addressed, and the changes made to bring the film to Broadway — which were celebrated by critics—offer evidence that the film’s success was not based on its most interesting elements. Yet it is this strange, ambivalent mix of factors that ensure this piece of our culture is a telling lens for politics today worthy of our attention.

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