Hamilton puts representation back in the narrative, tells our story
When the hit musical Hamilton debuted on Broadway last year, most people had nothing but praise for the rap retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton. Its songs — which combine rap, hip hop, and more traditional musical theatre styles — and its cast — made up of nonwhite actors who play historically white characters — were an instant success among audiences, musical theatre fans, and casual listeners alike.
Recently, however, the show has been taking a hit from historians who claim that certain historical inaccuracies detract from the racially positive message embodied in the clever lyrics and multiethnic cast. While these criticisms undoubtedly highlight the enduring flaws in the entertainment industry, they fail to recognize the steps forward that Hamilton has taken.
The aforementioned historical inaccuracies seem, for the most part, to take two forms. First, a significant number of the objections to the musical stem from the claim that it is part of what was called the “Founders Chic” mentality by The Atlantic. Due in part to the increasing popularity of the founding fathers of the country, including Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others depicted in the show, many of the flaws of the actual historical figures have been glossed over or altogether ignored.
In reality, Washington was aloof and often distant, a far cry from the fatherly figure of the musical. Far worse, Jefferson was an unapologetic slaveholder. Hamilton himself was in favor of big banks and, at one point, a monarchal presidency. The historical figures themselves may have had revolutionary ideas for organizing a government, but their attitudes towards many issues were, if nothing else, very much the product of their time.
More criticism stems from the fact that the African Americans essential to the country’s establishment were largely ignored in favor of focusing on the white heroes of the narrative. The New York Times identified Cato, a slave who belonged to Hercules Mulligan and who worked as a spy by his owner’s side, as one such figure who might have easily been included, yet he is not given a place alongside his fellow revolutionaries in the musical.
“Imagine Hamilton with white actors,” said Annette Gordon-Reed, a history and law professor at Harvard University, in an article for The Public Historian. “Would the rosy view of the founding era grate?”
Though it can’t be ignored that the roles of historical minorities go largely unexplored over the course of the show, they aren’t completely disregarded. Numerous lyrics reference both the abolitionist views held by Hamilton, as well as a battalion of slaves organized by John Laurens who fought in the Revolutionary War in exchange for their freedom.
While it’s true that the founding fathers get a free pass for many of the problematic aspects of their lives, the point of Hamilton was never to critique them. Rather, it aims to take their stories — stories about white men, which have been predominantly claimed by subsequent generations of Caucasian Americans over the years — and give other ethnicities a sense of ownership over them as well.
Hamilton isn’t history — it’s fiction. And it’s far more focused on what it can do for the future than how it can reflect the past.
“[Working on the show] is the only time I’ve ever felt particularly American,” said actor Daveed Diggs, who portrays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, in an interview with Charlie Rose. “I think ... it gives value to whoever you are; I think it does that for everybody.”
Hamilton can also be an eye-opening experience for everyone, because it draws attention to a number of issues that are being increasingly discussed today. The specifically nonwhite cast, which recently experienced pushback after a controversial casting call, only serves to highlight the number of roles from which minorities are still systematically excluded, both on Broadway and in the entertainment industry in general. And the emphasis placed on immigrants, and their enormous contributions to our nation, is equally timely considering the present-day political atmosphere.
Just because Hamilton hasn’t fixed every problem in the entertainment industry in one fell swoop doesn’t mean that more positive changes can’t build off of its success in the future.
We can’t fault Hamilton for not pulling off an entire revolution when in truth, it is only the first step of a process that will take far more effort and love to succeed.
But as far as first steps go, it is certainly a powerful — and catchy — one, and it has left Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds excited for what comes next.