For every great movie set in New York, there are at least five shitty ones to counteract it (consider the likes of Just My Luck, New York Minute, The Secret Life of Pets, Mr. Deeds, Two Weeks Notice, Along Came Polly, Bride Wars, et. al.). Among the latter category is, of course, 2006’s Night at the Museum. Based on Zagreb-born Milan Trenc’s 1993 illustrated children’s book of the same name, a film adaptation of Night at the Museum would probably have been greenlit regardless of Theodore Roosevelt being a major presence and part of the American Museum of Natural History at a time when George W. Bush was peddling more low-key “Make America Great Again” politics. Alas, because Roosevelt has always been such a central aspect of the museum, his “character” plays a pivotal role in all three–yes, three–films based on Trenc’s original story. In each of the movies, Robin Williams would agree to lend his own unique brand to the role of a Roosevelt-based statue/wax figure, unfortunately concluding his career with 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb–his last appearance in film prior to committing suicide.
But it was really the first movie that focuses on Roosevelt coming to life to help Larry (Ben Stiller), the museum’s new nighttime security guard, “save the day” as he was always portrayed to in historical texts and other propaganda. This reputation, too, also prevailed thanks, in partiality, to his famed, sexual innuendo-laden aphorism, “Walk softly, but carry a big stick” (one of those malappropriated sayings in the vein of Andy Warhol’s “Fifteen Minutes of Fame” in that Roosevelt had originally said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”). As in: beat the shit out of anyone–particularly Native Americans (though the statement was intended to refer to foreign rather than domestic policy)–who doesn’t let you have what you want. Labeled as “big stick diplomacy,” no one ever seemed inclined to point out that the proverb apparently originated in West Africa, which Roosevelt himself called out at the time of uttering it, yet was subsequently forever credited with being the person attributable for the saying. Alas, just another white man’s kifing.
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While the name Roosevelt–Theodore or otherwise–has long been associated with wealth and power in the state and city of New York, said clout has at last met its end in the form of the Museum of Natural History’s decision to remove the long-standing exterior “welcoming” statue of Teddy flanked by an African and Native American man in submissive positions atop the front steps of the edifice. Riding high on his horse, the composition is an overt nod to the white supremacy and subjugation of persons of color that have long reigned over the globe, and in the U.S. especially. Considering the museum’s mission statement is: “To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe,” it is, in this instance, markedly long overdue that they should come to realize–to understand–that this statue represents a detriment to human culture (and its progress) as a whole. What’s more, perhaps removing it (and any Teddys therein) before 2006 might have spared the film industry yet another frothy, overly sanitized Hollywood movie set in New York (itself long ago Hollywood-ified by Disney’s Times Square infiltration in the 90s).
Of course, the hesitancy and heel-digging about this man’s removal–at least on the exterior of one of NY’s most recognizable landmarks–stems from how enmeshed Roosevelt is in the history of the museum. For fuck’s sake, the building is located in Theodore Roosevelt Park. And oh, was co-founded by Teddy’s daddy, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. And yet it was Jr., as the thirty-third governor of New York and twenty-sixth president of the (Un-)United States, who would garner the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, a two-story monument located at the Central Park West entrance, designed by John Russell Pope and first broken ground on by Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, Franklin D. in 1931 (when he was still the state’s governor), a year, incidentally, that some of the coins in the coffer might have been better used for other expenditures, but hey, commemorating the Roosevelt name in NY has always been important to said family.
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With the memorial consisting of the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, even the removal of his iconic statue will not change the fact that the man is all over that museum, his territory marked as though he pissed on it with his so-called “big stick.” And so, in the end, maybe Night at the Museum was always destined to pollute the filmography categorizable as “movies set in New York.” But, at the very least, he might not have gotten so much play as a character had this momentous removal of the effigy occurred prior to that Bush presidency year of ‘06.
As many have tried to give Roosevelt the “benefit of the doubt” as a result of his many accomplishments (all arising from the boon of congenital wealth and privilege), he has been billed as a “complex” man. A “paradox.” An avid hunter despite his conservationist platform (in fact, “two of the elephants featured in the
That a statue could dredge up so many feelings of contempt and resentment feels further ironic when considering Roosevelt was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. But then, those likely to receive such an award were even more limited in scope back then–not to mention the fact that peace was defined much differently at that time. So it was that the statue, which would come to be known officially as the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, was unveiled in tribute to Roosevelt’s achievements in 1940. Yet the rendering has been so controversial for so long that the museum even has an “Addressing the Statue” section up on its website to acknowledge that “to understand the statue, we must recognize our country’s enduring legacy of racial discrimination–as well as Roosevelt’s troubling views on race… Such an effort does not excuse the past but it can create a foundation for honest, respectful, open dialogue.”
A dialogue, finally, that has led to Teddy’s toppling. And yes, Roosevelt had some very “troubling” views on race, indeed, as a full-on believer in eugenics manifested in such letter-writing quotes as, “It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum… Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”
This, incidentally, was not dialogue that made it into the mouth of Robin Williams, whitewashed as Night at the Museum turned out to be. A movie that will be even more impossible to watch in the context of the future, but then, perhaps it will have to go the way of Gone With the Wind (either banned or slapped with a contextual disclaimer). Or we could just pretend it never happened, expunge it from the archives of movie history. That would, in truth, be preferable.