The Newsies and the Kingdom of God?

NewsiesOk, so I’m late to the game, yes, I just watched Newsies for the first time. Emily still can’t believe I just now saw it. All I can say is that in my home growing up, with four other brothers, musicals weren’t really something we willfully chose to watch (but it was my loss!).

I’m glad I watched the movie for a number of reasons. Watching it as an adult really opened up some interesting aspects to the film. First I was surprised that Disney put out such a subversive film, I mean the whole movie is about organizing unions, child labor issues and corporate greed. It’s about a bunch of filthy-mouthed street kids who are homeless and uneducated yet organize after having the cost of their papers go up. Granted, the movie is based off a true story about a bunch of Newsies in the late 19th century who went on strike against Joe Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, and so it has roots in history, it still stands out as a rather provocative tale, especially for Disney.

The Kingdom of God?

As I sat back and reflected on the movie more, I realized just how much of the Kingdom of God was present in the narrative. Take for instance the role of Denton, the journalist for the Sun, he essentially plays the role of someone who is working for the justice of these street kids. He literally gives a voice to the voiceless when he publishes news article through the Sun and then later through their own underground paper.

Which brings up another point, isn’t it interesting that Pulitzer’s ‘spare’ printing press is the very machine that prints the paper that ultimately brings his empire down a few notches? This is a perfect picture of how Pulitzer’s power, turned to excess, meant that the leftovers, here in the form of a printing press, was laying around in a basement somewhere. One key moment towards the end of the story is when Pulitzer asks who printed the underground paper, and Jack responded, “You Did!” This “change from the inside” is certainly reminiscent of the gospel story.

Another aspect of the Kingdom might be Jack’s (or “Cowboy”) key role in the story. He’s a kid who has no family and lives in a Newsboy lodging house, and is offered a new start by Pulitzer if only jack will work for him (you could read this as the temptations in the desert). Yet, Jack, who in this transaction has everything to gain and little to lose calls the offer off, and risks his own life (his alternative to working with Pulitzer is prison) in order to help his friends.

Finally, even nonviolence is the option David, and Jack following suite, demand from the Newsies. David says something to the effect of, “If you want to be just like them, (Hearst and Pulitzer represent the establishment), then stoop to their level and “scrape,” but that’s just what they want us to do. Change can only come about if we don’t fight back!” This speech even leads the Brooklyn Newsies to accept the challenge.

Jack as The Perverse Prodigal Son

Another way to look at the film would be to follow in typical psychoanalytic fashion and see it as a story about family complexes. We can see this complex in any number of movies as Žižek states:

Take Steven Spielberg: the secret motif than runs through all his key films – ET, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List – is the recovery of the father, of his authority. One should remember that the family to whose small boy ET appears was deserted by the father (as we learn in the very beginning), so that ET is ultimately a kind of “vanishing mediator” who provides a new father (the good scientist who, in the film’s last shot, is already seen embracing the mother) – when the new father is here, ET can leave and “go home.”

Here then we might ‘read’ Newsies as a kind of perverse (as in turning around) Prodigal Son story. When Pulitzer raises the price on the ‘papes’ this creates problems for Jack and the rest of his (Newsie) family (Isn’t this the same kind of struggle many in industrialized America have always faced?). We can think of Jack as a kind of not-yet-realized father figure to the newsboys and Denton is the “vanishing Mediator”. In order to right this wrong, and get things straight for his “family,” Jack must visit his ‘father,’ the God-like figure of Joseph Pulitzer.

It is Denton who gives the Newsies the know-how, and the imagination to think beyond their own situations. His presence in the film is that of a true advocate. Denton acts as the father-figure-who-can-never-be, that is, he plays the role of one who is perfectly good and innocent and (has to) vanish once his role is finished. And Denton does play his part in bring about change, he is instrumental in getting Jack a second hearing with Pulitzer, and it is at that second hearing (or the “son’s perverse return”) that things finally get straightened out.

The “Son’s” Return

There are two scenes in the movie where Jack is confronted with his own father-figure played by pulitzer. Jack’s real father is in jail, a criminal who we know nothing about, yet Pulitzer plays the father-figure role well. In the first scene he appears to be concerned with Jack’s well-being, he promises him more money than he’ll know what to do with, etc. He is the one who can make it all right, but first Jack, “You listen to me!” Pulitzer is still concerned, most of all, with dominating and controlling his son. In this first scene where Jack falls for the bait, and accepts Pulitzer’s fatherly promise to care for him. In the second scene, which comes at the end of the movie, roles are now reversed. Having witnessed Denton’s heroic move that helped them rally all the children being used in 19th century “sweatshops” in front of Pulitzer’s office, Jack appears back at Pulitzer’s office. This time Pulitzer is powerless, Jack declares that no-one cares what Pulitzer has to say anymore, they’re not listening to him because Jack now has the power of the press (his own underground paper). In fact, the prodigal son in this story, returns not to ask forgiveness but to demand repentance. Pulitzer yells, “Now, you listen to me,” and Jack responds, “NO, YOU LISTEN TO ME!” It is in this moment that the tables are turned, and the son who returns home demands that the father fess up to his sins and make things right once and for all. He can no longer dominate through his printing press, even that has been used against him. Afterwards, Jack is promised by T. Roosevelt anything he wants, and Jack asks to return to his regular life, with the newsboys. The final scene is Jack as the triumphal father-figure of the Newsies returns, Denton’s now gone, and things are better than they could have imagined (they all received better wages).

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

5 thoughts on “The Newsies and the Kingdom of God?”

  1. Wess-

    This post is unbelievable…

    My wife is obsessed with that movie. She has it memorized, and even had the soundtrack at one point. So it is hilarious that you just watched it, let alone posted on it. I have never seen someone analyze that movie in this way. At first I thought it would be a light read, humorous, with a few poignant observations. But it wasn’t. It was a brilliant post and having seen it as many times as I have (we actually just watched it last weekend) I have never thought about it in light of of the Kingdom of God and the movie’s subversive nature. I will never watch it the same way again. Great stuff.

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