Over the weekend, Disney+ released the filmed version of the musical Hamilton for viewers to revisit America's history while relishing in the popular production from the comfort of their home. The highly-anticipated streaming event definitely created a lot of buzz — Twitter reported over 2 million tweets about the program after its July 3 release — but a lot of it was critical.
Controversy over how the musical glazes over historical inaccuracies, in addition to its glorification of Alexander Hamilton and other founding fathers, has been a subject of discussion between fans and historians since Hamilton first gathered mainstream acclaim in 2015. But put in the context of the current social and political climate — including discourse about the problematic or racist behavior from the "heroes" of American history — the messages and depictions within the beloved work are being given more intense scrutiny.
Director Ava DuVernay tweeted that while she "wouldn’t have studied any of those 'founders' like I did if it wasn’t for #Hamilton and @Lin_Manuel," in reality, Alexander Hamilton wasn't quite the progressive pro-immigrant, anti-slavery champion that many fans of the musical may believe him to be. "He believed in manumission, not abolition," wrote DuVernay, continuing: "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."
More historians and others chimed in to voice their concerns and set the record straight: Hamilton engaged in "white flight" when he fled to North America from the Caribbean and married into the slave-owning Schuyler family. While Hamilton briefly calls out Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves, the show ignores the fact that James Madison and George Washington also were also slave-owners as well. As a politician, he wasn't a "champion of the little guy," and even favored having the president serve for life.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator and star, addressed the controversy on Twitter in a reply to a tweet from former BuzzFeed writer Tracy Clayton, calling the criticism of the show "valid." "I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical," he wrote. "Did my best. It’s all fair game."
Appreciate you so much, @brokeymcpoverty. All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game. https://t.co/mjhU8sXS1U— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) July 6, 2020
Miranda has addressed the tension before, most recently on NPR last month, when he spoke about the show in the context of Black Lives Matter. "It's a system in which every character in our show is complicit in some way or another," said Miranda.
"Hamilton — although he voiced anti-slavery beliefs — remained complicit in the system," he continued. "And other than calling out Jefferson on his hypocrisy with regards to slavery in Act 2, doesn't really say much else over the course of Act 2. And I think that's actually pretty honest. ... He didn't really do much about it after that. None of them did. None of them did enough."
But what Clayton pointed out in her Tweet, as well as others who engaged in the discourse surrounding online, is that "cancelling" Hamilton isn't a productive solution.
“hamilton is a great show that introduced a lot of people to theater” and “the erasure of slavery and the depictions of the characters are problematic” are two things that can exist at the same time!— kels (@bwaykels) July 3, 2020
There's no denying that the show has brought a great deal of good — from its diverse casting and melding of art and education, to the impactful way it introduced many people to live theater — but acknowledging its shortcomings and having more nuanced discussions about popular art and culture is a sign of progress and opportunity for growth.