The Less Than Revolutionary Side of Hamilton
The screen adaptation of Hamilton, the 2015 multi-award-winning musical is making its debut on Disney+ this weekend and by all means you should watch it. It’s a terrific piece of theater that features some of the most inventive music and lyrics of the last decade as penned by creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and performed by actors of color at a time when American theater remains a decidedly white, if not outwardly racist institution.
Yet in watching Hamilton, it’s important to temper our estimation of Miranda’s work of art. Great theater? Yes. Revolutionary? Maybe less so. Hamilton’s most radical feature is its decision to have actors of color play the white founding fathers. Making American history come alive for a current generation who may not see themselves in white colonial history is indeed an admirable goal and one which explains the musical’s appeal to high school American history teachers who frequently use the musical in their classrooms. But is it enough to free the story from its historically white roots? Is Hamilton a universal story about immigrants who “rise up” as Miranda would like us to believe, or is it ultimately a white tale through and through?
Taken at face value, the show’s casting which is not so much color-blind, but as Brian Eugenio Herrera calls it “ ‘compositional casting,’ in which the playwright scripts casting as a constitutive part of the show’s composition,” is a remarkable move. Said Leslie Odom Jr. who won a Tony Award for playing Hamilton’s nemesis, Aaron Burr, “I was a student of African-American history. I cared way more about achievements and hard-won battles of black people in this country than I did about the founding fathers . . . . I think this show is going to hopefully make hundreds of thousands of people of color feel part of something that we don’t often feel a part of.”
Yet in having actors of color portray these historical white figures, the musical also performs some slight of hand. In championing the founding fathers and in its overall celebration of America, the musical also overlooks the fact that the large majority of the founding fathers were slaveowners including individuals like George Washington who recently have come under renewed scrutiny. (Thomas Jefferson is the sole founding father in the musical who is categorized as a slaveowner.) Hamilton himself was not free of an association with slavery either. He may have been part of the abolitionist New York Manumission Society, but his wife Eliza’s family owned slaves. The musical glosses over this point, and that’s unfortunate, because in doing so, it unwittingly reinforces the mythology of the founding fathers as unsullied great men, when they were in fact less than pure. As historian Lyra D. Monteiro writes, “it is problematic to have black and brown actors stand in for the great white men of the early United States in a play that does not acknowledge that the ancestors of these same actors were excluded from the freedoms for which the founders fought.” Hamilton may be informed by history (the musical’s historical bona fides are derived from Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography Alexander Hamilton), but it cherry picks that history, choosing to dismiss the parts that are uncomfortable or which don’t fit the show’s overall celebratory nature.
In fact, it’s precisely the much earlier 1969 musical 1776, about the creation of the Declaration of Independence as constructed by the founding fathers that allows for a more critical eye towards the issue of slavery. While lily-white in its casting and despite indulging in what some historians have called “Founders Chic,” a movement that tends to idolize the founding fathers, glossing over any of their problematic character traits, 1776 does not cast a blind eye to the proceedings of our nation’s birth or the white gentlemen who wrote it into being. The song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” speaks to the wealth, property, and conservative power that the white founders wielded, while “Molasses to Rum” explicitly documents the slave trade and excoriates Northerners for their abolitionist hypocrisy, noting the role that they too play in the business of slavery.
As I talk about in the new edition of my book The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, the sin of omission around slavery is also what allows Hamilton to celebrate another American mythology: the narrative of the hard-working immigrant and the American Dream. If you work hard, so the theory goes, it doesn’t matter where you come from, you too can be a success in America. That’s Miranda’s take on Hamilton’s life and some might say a gloss on Miranda’s life as well. But this emphasis on immigrants achieving the American Dream is betrayed by two important issues in Hamilton. First, African Americans were not “immigrants” to America; they were enslaved persons, brought to the country forcibly. They had no choice but to “work hard” without any upward mobility to show for it. That not-so-subtle difference, despite the presence of Black actors in the show, is not teased out.
Second, unspoken is the notion that links the “American Dream” with white supremacy. While the show’s Hamilton might be portrayed by an actor of color (Lin-Manuel Miranda), remembering that the real Hamilton was white weakens the idea that everyone has an equal chance at success in this country. One of the show’s most famous and oft-quoted lines is uttered by Hamilton and the Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette who ceremoniously announce: “Immigrants. We get the job done” during the Battle of Yorktown sequence. It is a line that always receives deafening applause and cheers at Hamilton performances, even more so since the days of the Trump presidency, which has consistently demonized immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and other largely non-white parts of the world. Having two actors of color sing this line to Hamilton’s typically white audiences is indeed gratifying, a reaffirmation of our country’s immigrant roots. But as has been made loud and clear in the weeks of protests following the murder of George Floyd and other Black individuals, people of color in this country do not have equal access to opportunity. Systemic racism is everywhere, impeding the progress of Americans of color at nearly every turn, no matter how hard they work.
There is no doubt that Hamilton deserves all the accolades bestowed upon it. Miranda’s creative voice is fresh and needed in American musical theater. But as we celebrate this Fourth of July, a patriotic holiday coming after weeks of protests around racial justice, we should remember that the founding fathers weren’t as perfect as history might have us believe, and without probing more deeply into the real history of Hamilton, despite all the musical’s good intentions, the show may actually reinforce notions of white supremacy and inequality, rather than combat it.