Freaks is about a group of people treated like second-class citizens. The sideshow performers have physical deformities which are exploited by the “normal” people.
Freaks has many similarities with standard Hollywood films that attempt to promote diversity but remain problematic.
The freaks are oppressed, but they’re cheerful. Like all Hollywood minorities, they have hearts of gold and serve their privileged masters with a song and a smile – their mobile shanty town resembles a Bohemian camp. And, we even have a few token good “normals,” to give the audience someone to relate to.
Fortunately, Freaks diverts from the template and becomes more than just a 1930’s version of The Elephant Man.
Our good normals serve a plot point, but none of them are main characters. The freaks are always in focus. They exist in and of themselves, and not as a means to teach normals a lesson on tolerance.
The biggest difference between Freaks and the standard Hollywood model comes at the end. The freaks aren’t saved by an enlightened normal, and they’re not offered noble, “inspiring” martyrdom either. The story remains theirs, and from their perspective.
Perhaps this is why audiences didn’t like Freaks upon release. It’s not the sweet syrup studios usually spoon-feed audience members who present their ticket stubs as proof of their non-bigotry. (*cough* The Help *cough*) And, maybe that’s why Freaks is remembered today, while movies like Gentleman’s Agreement have been forgotten.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.