Hamilton and the Case for Nuance
Hamilton doesn’t need defending. It’s one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the 21st century. Very few contemporary stage productions have reached the zeitgeist quote the way this show has.
Yet, I feel the need to say a few things about Hamilton.
Given where we are at the moment, amidst finally having challenging conversations about where the United States has been and where we want it to go, it’s worth noting why Lin-Manuel Miranda’s massive musical truly is worthy of its praise. First, I want to start with the counter argument.
The case against Hamilton
The biggest issues people have brought up with Hamilton are tied to historical inaccuracies, most notably I would say, as it relates to slavery and the Founding Fathers.
“[Alexander Hamilton] was not an abolitionist. He bought and sold slaves for his in-laws, and opposing slavery was never at the forefront of his agenda.” — Historian Annette Gordon-Reed (in the Harvard Gazette)
Alexander Hamilton was not an abolitionist, and knowing the horrors of slavery, a true American holocaust, this is a huge character flaw that is worth bringing to light. Miranda’s production lifts up Hamilton and never addresses this part of who he was. In fact, one scene actually has him using Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of enslaved people against him. We also see many instances of him showing support to John Laurens, who was far closer to being an actual abolitionist than Hamilton ever was.
Another point of criticism about the show is seeing BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)
portray the founding fathers, who were mostly slave owners or were, at the very least, supportive of keeping the institution alive when forming the country. To see people who look like us lionizing the very same people who would have had us in shackles can feel deeply dichotomous. Some have said the show perpetuates white dominant culture, implying the message to be “we should all see these men as heroes, regardless of race, ethnicity or historical prejudice or trauma!”
These are valid criticisms. If you watched this show and came away feeling that way, you’re not wrong. I just feel differently.
The case for music
A couple of years ago, 21st Century Fox released a movie musical called The Greatest Showman. It took the world by surprise. No one expected a January release with Hugh Jackman singing and dancing in a top hat to be the massive hit that movie became. It was a wildly inaccurate portrayal of P.T. Barnum, who by all accounts was an absolute monster and did not look like a chiseled Australian superhero. Why was it a hit?
The movie was not great. Seriously, it wasn’t. The story was one we’ve seen a bazillion times. The acting was fine. The cinematography was cool. The soundtrack was a chart topper. People don’t quote scenes from The Greatest Showman, they sing lyrics from the songs on Spotify.
Hamilton’s music is brilliant.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is a lyricist and while he draws on a lot of the hip hop he grew up listening to (Biggie Smalls is pepper all up and through this joint), he has bars and that cannot be denied. Nearly every line in Hamilton is rapped or sung. Try writing a whole story with no speaking parts in between. Also try writing it about a guy in your history books. Also try making it a compelling story and actually have each song be a bop. That’s hard. He did it. I don’t care how corny you find some of those tracks, “Satisfied” is a work of genius. “Wait for It” is legit. “Non-Stop” is a musical medley for the ages, and “Quiet Uptown” still makes me tear up. Every. Single. Time.
This is all opinion of course, but I believe it in my soul y’all. In my SOUL.
The case for story
Imagine Hamilton was a work of fiction. Imagine we called it historical fiction. Maybe it’s an alternate reality where all the Founding Fathers were black and brown. What would that look like might be the question? It could be like one of those Marvel’s What if? comics or DC’s Elseworlds. Those stories are told all the time.
One of my favorite What if stories is Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. This is a brilliant novel that imagines a world where the underground railroad was an actual train that enslaved people could find, board and escape to freedom.
I think, when we look at works of fiction as works of fiction, we open up mental doors that tell us it’s ok if this isn’t what it was because it’s not supposed to be.
I recognize Hamilton is different in many ways. It’s being used to educate high school kids about the Founding Fathers. It’s based on one of the most-taught-about era’s in United States history books. It’s set during a time that is deeply painful for black people, indigenous people and people of color.
Ahead of all that it’s a story though. It’s a story a Puerto Rican artist from New York wrote from the heart. It’s a hero’s journey story that’s beautifully written and told and performed by our people. It’s better than the real story, and it’s a masterclass in storytelling through music. The characters are compelling and the arcs of the two leads are well-defined.
As a writer, I love that stuff. As a black man, I love seeing a colorful team of creators and performers united to tell a powerful story.
The case for everyone
There’s another 2018 movie I think of when I think of Hamilton. Remember that Spider-man movie from a couple of years ago? The one that won an Academy Award?
Into the Spider-verse is an incredible movie. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend checking it out. The story takes the ball away from our usual friendly neighborhood Spider-man, Peter Parker, and puts it in the hands of Mile Morales, an Afro-Latino kid from Brooklyn whose dad is a police officer. My biggest takeaway from that movie was simple: anybody with heart, drive and a true sense of responsibility could be Spider-man. Anybody.
Anybody could have built this nation. When I see people who look like me in the room where it happens. When I see brown people crafting a new country, I’m reminded that the next chapter in history has yet to be written.
We need not crave a seat at another man’s table when we are perfectly capable of building our own table. What’s special about Hamilton, to me, is what it says about our own capability to create, build and grow.
The case for now
As I sat down with my family to watch Hamilton at home for the first time, I wondered how I would feel about it, having not seen it for a couple of years. Civil unrest and conversations about race taking centerstage right now, I wondered.
It got me again though.
As a writer, I once again felt it in my bones when I heard “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” I felt that because it’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. When I see black men being murdered for no good reason, and a world that tries to justify those murders, I feel like I have a target on my back. I feel like I’m running out of time.
So I write.
It’s flawed. It’s not perfect. There’s context to consider, or course, but Hamilton is a worthwhile piece of art, well-crafted by a group of brilliant creators of color. It’s important, for more reasons than what we may see on the surface. Let’s approach it with a few layers of nuance.