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Hamilton’s Cultural Significance—and Potential Cancellation—Amidst Black Lives Matter
The World Turned Upside Down
Hamilton—the critically acclaimed, Tony-Award winning musical sensation written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda—was recently released on the platform Disney+ for commercial streaming. Directed by Thomas Kail, the pro-shot was originally set to release in theaters next winter; however, given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the very notion of movie-going has been deemed so outlandish that theaters have begun the unfortunate shift to obsolescence.
Miranda describes Hamilton as “the story of America then, as told by those who live in it now.” It centers around the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and an eminent statesman, legal scholar, and economist. Its popularity is mainly credited to the style of music in which the show is performed, as it deviates from musical theatre and instead sources from genres such as rap, hip-hop, and jazz. Because nearly all of its performers identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), the show offers a complex retelling of the history of the Founding Fathers; that is, one in which the lives of the previously white, frumpy old men in powdered wigs and pantaloons are revitalized by 21st century vernacular, a smattering of pop culture references, and racial diversity.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
Regardless of the little connection you may share with the show itself, you’re bound to be well acquainted with its ubiquitous global fan base. Super fans of the show, or “Hamilfans” as they’ve dubbed themselves, are notorious for their relentless and inappropriate glorification of the Founding Fathers. Many indulge in scripting original fanfiction where “shipping” (a strong desire harbored by fans that certain characters become romantically involved) is rampant and unrealistic depictions of the characters bloom. The most prominent of these instances is one popularized by the social media platform Tumblr; the Miku binder Thomas Jefferson. The graphic depicts Thomas Jefferson, a white slave owner whose racist flaws lie beyond redemption, as a Black, transgender, bisexual man. The infamous depiction, although humorous, begs the question: does Hamilton elicit more harm than good? Do fans of the musical wrongly consider the Founding Fathers to be the valorous, revered icons portrayed in the show?
History Has Its Eyes On You
Although the diversity of the show is arguably its greatest strength, it also presents its greatest challenge. Ava DuVernay, an esteemed director known best for her award-winning documentary 13th about mass incarceration, the 13th Amendment, and the prison industrial complex remarked the following candidly in response to a Twitter user’s assertation of Hamilton as a slave owner:
“Yep. Bought/owned. Believed in manumission, not abolition. Wrote violent filth about Native people. Believed in only elites holding political power and no term limits. And the banking innovation has troubled roots. That’s why I don’t look to art for my history. I study history.”
Miranda’s musical paints Hamilton as a pro-immigration reformer whose humble beginnings incite him to speak up for marginalized groups. As he plays the title character, it’s understandable that the Puerto-Rican Miranda, a firm believer in immigrant grit himself, would seek to portray the character in a way that ultimately causes the audience to root for his successes as well as come to sympathize with his losses; as a “young, scrappy and hungry” guy-next-door type with an inexplicable knack for the ladies.
Packing what is arguably the most important era in American history into a total running time of 160 minutes is no easy task. By omitting information crucial to understanding the real Hamilton’s story as well as inserting a narrative that, albeit false, resonates with many underrepresented children, Hamilton’s digestible fantasy is incorrect.
Hamilton and #blacklivesmatter
Amidst social upheaval and the deep reflection of criminal justice and political systems within America, Hamilton has once again garnered cultural relevance. The show’s creators and fans have used it as a vehicle for the Black Lives Matter movement, citing powerful, commanding quotes from the show such as, “If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?” in hopes of rallying young audiences in support of the movement.
However, connecting the musical to the movement hasn’t been viewed as monumental by all. Historian Lyra Monteiro, who specializes in public humanities, early United States history, and race and ethnic identity shared her thoughts in an interview in which she stated the following:
“Oh, we’re not just telling old, white history. This isn’t your stuffy old-school history that’s just praising white people. Look, we’ve got people of color in the cast. This is everybody’s story. Which, it isn’t. It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative. Is this the history that we most want black and brown youth to connect with—one in which black lives so clearly do not matter?”
The conversations regarding Hamilton demonstrate the ability of consumers to view art with a critical lens that challenges the status quo. We hold power in what stories we choose to consume and must utilize it. Hamilton, problematic tendencies aside, is regarded as a pop culture phenomenon. Praised for Miranda’s lyrical abilities and its groundbreaking genre-melding, the show will be continued to be hailed as an American achievement in theatre. Enjoy Hamilton’s incredibly gifted cast, catchy numbers, and stunning choreography. Savor the remarkable set design, witty allusions, and orchestrations courtesy of Miranda’s creative mastermind. But don’t fall victim to its false narrative. Don’t believe its endless veneration of Hamilton, who, in truth, remained complicit in a system built to oppress enslaved Black Americans.