Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the last five years, you’ve probably come across someone talking about Hamilton. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Moana, In The Heights, Mary Poppins Returns), the show is a musical combining hip hop, rap, R’n’B and musical theatre to retell the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers who led the war for North American independence against Britain in the 18th century.
Since it first debuted in 2015, the show has been pushing boundaries for racial diversity and representation in musical theatre, casting the historically all white leaders from the time, including George Washington, the first President of the United States, with a BIPOC cast.
And, over the weekend, Disney Plus began streaming a full production by the original cast, leading many to question—in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and police brutality—whether Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton does more to ‘glorify’ people who were historically slave owners, rather than to simply entertain.
The different takes on Hamilton
Essentially, there are two very clear interpretations of Hamilton: it glorifies America’s Founding Fathers, whose involvement in slavery in the U.S. is undeniable, and chooses to omit the ugly parts of their history, or, that the production is practically a fanfic of real life and set in an alternate universe and is, really… just a musical.
In 2015, a New York Times piece claimed that Hamilton painted Alexander Hamilton (originally portrayed by Miranda) as a saint and for the people, which they argued went against scholars accounts that he “was more a man for the one percent than the 99 percent.” The musical ends with Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, singing that he would have “done so much more” against slavery if he were alive longer, and hugely exaggerates Hamilton’s “goodness” and eagerness for justice.
And, in the wake of the current conversations about racial inequality towards BIPOC communities, the play chooses to ignore the fact several of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. It paints Hamilton as anti-slavery, despite historically inheriting slaves at one point in his life. As such, some argue that Miranda’s portrayal of Hamilton in the play risks pulling the rug over some of the ugly parts of this period of American Independence.
Others, like Vox’s Aja Romano, argue that the play is a reimagining of their country’s founding history and doesn’t need to be historically accurate, because it’s essentially “fanfiction” (their words, not ours). In the context of fanfics, we’d tag this as Real Person Fanfiction (RPF) with a Political Alternate Universe (AU) and Racebending elements on AO3. Or, as they put it, “Hamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it.” According to Romano, it doesn’t need to address the fact that tailor Hercules Mulligan had a black slave or that “the founders really didn’t want to create the country we actually live in today,” because it isn’t retelling history, it’s rewriting it.
This conversation around the historical accuracy and political bias of a play about a group of Black friends rapping their way to securing American independence has been around for as long as the play first debuted. But, when a film of the stage production featuring the original cast released on Disney Plus over the weekend—aptly on the fourth of July, ofc—the conversation resumed.
As AJ+ writer Sana Saeed put it, “it’s funny how in a time where we are taking down the statues of slaveholders [and] traders, changing names of buildings named after segregationists… people are celebrating the Hamilton movie, a musical that whitewashes a slave trader and underplays slavery.”
Of course, you can enjoy the music and production of Hamilton and still criticise it for potentially glamorising people who owned slaves and willingly chose to not fight against slavery, but it’s an interesting conversation to have, especially right now. Statues of known slave owners and racial aggressors are being forcibly taken down by protestors, and that’s generally celebrated.
In light of all of this resurfacing, Miranda addressed the criticism towards his play on Twitter, admitting that “all of the criticism is valid.”
“The sheer tonnage of complexities and failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took six years and fit as much as I could in a two and a half hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game.”