As always, if you don’t like when things you like get criticized on any level… skip this post, beloveds!
My friend K got me into Hamilton.
K and I met in our senior seminar in the history department at our alma mater. She went on to get her MA in History and I went to English Literature. When Hamilton was getting popular and she’d already traveled to see the show once before, she introduced me to what was (and remains) a stellar musical experience at the height of its early popularity. If not for K, I don’t think I would’ve cared as much as I actually do about Hamilton –
Nor would I have a framework to build any critical thoughts.
Fast forward to July 2020 and well, I actually still think it’s a great musical.
However, I also have… thoughts on Hamilton after what feels like an eternity.
I feel weird watching this Hamilfilm four years after it was recorded (but you’d best believe that I did watch it with my mom Friday morning). In 2016, I think the time was right for this film to be released. Many people were hyped about the way that the film put forward this air of “we are represented” and “we can be the power/change we want to see in the world”. So many (white) people were hopeful that the guy in charge would somehow grow an altruistic bone in his body and care about the people he was in charge of. Folks had hope for change and that they could be that change.
Do we feel the same way now?
Like not to get extra political, but as I watch the Orange Julius Caesar and his cronies conspire pretty publicly to steal another presidential election, the last thing I actually want is Hamilton. (Not saying I’m ungrateful to have it – especially as all I’ve had this time around is a bootleg where there are no closeups – but like… okay.)
How does Hamilton fit into 2020?
If I turn my brain off and just focus on the songs I know by heart, the performers who’ve gone on to great things, and the lovely costumes, Hamilton is fine and fantastic. For real.
The second that I let my critical brain come back online, however? Shit gets Uncomfy.
Because Hamilton is, in and of itself, absolutely uncritical of US history and of the people involved. In fact, it’s so focused on being celebratory of these moments in history and in creating a narrative of Alexander Hamilton – and early United States founding fathers – that it zooms right on past any critique it could make of their policies and legacies.
I mean, I get it.
If I was tasked – or had tasked myself – with turning Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography into a musical, of course I’d skip the tough stuff. Duh. Chernow’s biography is over 800 pages long if you include the index. There’s no way to turn that doorstop into a compact musical unless you cut huge chunks of it. And so Lin Manuel Miranda does.
The issue is that Chernow’s biography was already biased and then Lin Manuel Miranda clearly cherry-picked parts of Hamilton’s life to make into a legend. And folks ate that shit up with a spoon.
Again, I genuinely like Hamilton.
I think Lin Manuel Miranda is incredible at getting you to care about people you shouldn’t– who else could get my Black ass to publicly state that I wish I could play Aaron Burr – who figured he could’ve died in the duel with Hamilton but still was unwilling to free the Black people he thought he owned.
Manuel hit this sweet spot of trying getting people to learn (a la Schoolhouse Rock) while (over) identifying with historical figures (via racebending) and –
To an extent.
I’ve talked repeatedly about racebending on this site and I stand by the fact that it’s important in the moment. However, racebending is not a direct line to meaningful representation because half the time, it’s basically just a headcanon that goes nowhere. In Hamilton, the representation offered by seeing other Black and brown people playing enslavers is… minimal at best.
This isn’t new.
One of the long-running criticisms of Hamilton has been that it is just weird to see people act as though a 2016 musical where Black/brown people play white enslavers says or means anything. I know people who call it resistance, other fans of color, and I’m not wholly knocking that point of view –
I just don’t share it.
Because what good does recasting Thomas Jefferson, a man who enslaved and abused his wife’s teenaged half-sister and essentially held their children hostage, as a Black man do for me? I mean, it introduced me to Daveed Diggs, but… that’s about it.
Racebending people who enslaved Black people and were participating in atrocities against Black and Native people, doesn’t empower me? It doesn’t make people go “oh wait, let’s have these critical conversations”.
What it has done is make folks feel like they’re not weirdos for being obsessed with the founding fathers in 2020. What it has done is get a weirdly large amount of people interested in shipping the founding fathers than ever before. And tons of truly wild fan content and fandom drama.
It doesn’t seem to have inspired tons of people learning about how truly terrible these people were and how this country was built on badness. I mean, right now there’s probably an article in Vox or on the Nerdist right now talking about Hamilton has to be above critique because it’s fan fiction and blah blah blah-
(Please don’t tell me that there is such an article out there. I’ll lose it. For real.)
At the end of the day, Hamilton is basically professional historical real person fiction (RPF) and as someone trying to figure out how to get the rights to write that James Dean, Eartha Kitt, and Paul Newman story of my dreams… I fucks with that aspect of it.
But I’m also the last person to come out here saying that any fan fiction – or media in general, let’s be real here – is above reproach and should never actually receive criticism.
Sure, Hamilton doesn’t exist to teach me “real history” any more than Aida exists to teach me real Egyptian history or NSFW fan fiction as a whole exists to teach anyone how sex works. These are things set up to entertain and they do a very good job at that.
But there’s the whole issue of hyping up RPF of historical enslavers and antiblack motherfuckers at a time when we’re actively pushing back against systemic antiblackness that, partially because of them, has shaped what the United States looks like.
Like of course, not everything going wrong in the US in 2020 is Alexander Hamilton’s fault.
But it has been wild realizing across the years how many people look at Hamilton and see Lin Manuel Miranda’s approach to US history and go “oh yeah, these were just cool dudes I’d love to get a beer with them” with zero critical thinking about what 1777 (or the US at any point, really) was like for Black and Native people living on these shores.
Like engagement stops there.
No critical thoughts about how Hamilton really drops the ball when it comes to tackling its protagonists’ bigotry and slavery period.
Nothing about researching what Alexander Hamilton actually thought about Black people and Native Americans.
No lightbulb moment about how the musical makes all of the women – except for Peggy Schulyer, who has next to no characterization across the musical – revolve around Alexander like satellites in gorgeous dresses.
It’s just “wow, these are some great songs and I love singing along”.
Which would be fine, if not for the fact that in the twenty-four hours leading up to Hamilton’s release on Disney+, I was subject to seeing multiple people – some with massive followings – ALSO bemoaning the fact that they can’t just listen to their showtunes in peace.
Like they can’t just continue what they’ve been doing for the past four years: muting and blocking Black and brown people that just don’t like Hamilton for whatever reason –
They now have to make it out like they’re oppressed by the existence of people that don’t like the musical for whatever reason.
Back in 2018, I made a tweet that went vaguely viral about how all of the Founding Fathers were bad, but that Hamilton was just a good musical. The catalyst for this was seeing all of these people talk about how Hamilton was the only “unproblematic” founding father. This led to 85 comments on the main tweet alone and tons of people essentially explaining that either these men weren’t bad or that actually the worst thing Hamilton had done was cheat on his wife.
(I even got a few “slavery was normal then” responses and understand how little I love those.)
And the thing is that in 2020, things haven’t changed for the better.
People are still so much more invested in the idea of their favorites as unproblematic that they’re more willing to whine publicly about their right to like what they like without ever coming up against criticism or attempting critical thinking.
Not only are the founding fathers still straight trash for a variety of reasons…
So are many of the die hard fans who have apparently decided that they will in fact let Hamilton the musical teach them all they think they need to know about US history to the point of being petulant little toddlers when they see Black and brown people with beef fry that shit up.
But Hamilton is still a good musical.