The over-glorified Hamilton

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 6:35pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

On July 3, Disney+ will be exclusively streaming Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, “Hamilton,” also known as #Hamilfilm. Ever since 2015, “Hamilton” has been highly praised because it features solely BIPOC singers and actors on the Broadway stage telling the tale of the American Revolution. I myself am a huge fan of musicals and Broadway history, so when “Hamilton” came out, I couldn’t help but sing along to the Schuyler sisters and wished one day I would be able to accrue enough money to squeeze myself into the Richard Rodgers Theatre. 

Recently I noticed a lot of criticism toward the musical, and recognized how ironic and inappropriate the whole concept was: people of color, whose very existence was threatened by the people they were portraying, in a business which also has a history of excluding those who weren’t rich and white. Many before me have recognized the several issues “Hamilton” fans often glaze over. Writer Gene Demby noticed when he attended the show how there were only a handful of POC between him and the actors, and notes how “Hamilton” particularly attracts white audiences. Theatre has a history of segregated seating, plays with racist caricatures and minstrel shows. Along with the historical white audience, the exorbitant high ticket prices and constant sold-out status of the shows prevent the working class and BIPOC from attending as well. 

Even with a primarily white audience and a musical being held in a historically racist production setting, my biggest critique of “Hamilton'' is its historical inaccuracies. While I understand the musical is purely entertainment, and it could be bold for me to assume that people would believe in the portrayal of past white historical figures, when it comes to conversations of racism, slavery and how BIPOC were treated in colonial America, it wouldn’t surprise me if people become misinformed. Historian Lyra Monteiro notes how Miranda conducts a strategy called “Founders Chic,” representing the founders of America as relatable or cool people. This strategy distracts from the fact that the Founding Fathers were enslavers. In regards to Hamilton specifically, who is decorated as a great anti-slavery abolitionist, it is not mentioned that he once worked on a slave ship. There were actually few white people who were opposed to slavery, especially in the Carribean, and there is no historical accounts or statement to back up that Hamilton was anti-slavery. One of the reasons why Hamilton didn’t own slaves was because he was a poor immigrant, thus it was rather a practical addition rather than a moral protest. 

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Graphic by Cheryn Hong

Furthermore, the beautiful, intelligent and independent portrayal of the Schuyler family and sisters, while entertaining, distracts from their grand involvement in the business of enslaving. Elizabeth Schyuler was able to sing tunes such as “Helpless” at the ball and attract Hamilton because she had several enslaved people to prepare her. And on the note of the Schuyler sisters, “Hamilton” is also criticized for not passing the Bechdel test — while it seemingly features strong women, all the dialogue and plot revolve around the men.

Another core feature of the musical, which is also extremely problematic, is Miranda’s usage of the bootstraps immigration narrative. Hamilton is depicted as a rags to riches story. While it can’t be denied Hamilton may have worked hard for his success, it heavily denotes his other success factors and gaslights the struggles of other immigrants who may have worked just as hard but had societal oppressors keeping them from the same level of success. Factors such as structural racism, predatory capitalism and policies which prevented citizenship which impacted racialized immigrants debunks the American Dream and stems from the same model minority, idyllic, unrealistic expectation. Hamilton was supposedly a good American immigrant, yet he also supported the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which allowed the nation to surveil and deport its residents. This made it more difficult to become a naturalized citizen, restricting voting rights.

While I think it’s brilliant to put more people of color on the Broadway stage and step out of traditional racial casting expectations, I genuinely believe the whitewashed story is a huge factor in the hit musical’s success. While I can talk about how much I genuinely admire Miranda’s musical work and revolutionary attempts to change the physical appearance of the industry, he has glorified a story of the Founding Fathers without addressing how they founded a nation based upon racist and exclusionary actions which have perpetuated a systemically racist society today. He has taken talent and music from Black culture to tell a story of white men in American government to white audiences who accept the lack of representation, not in the production’s direct cast, but the story itself. The plotline of the musical overlooks BIPOC historical figures and allows the typecasting to satiate a certain diversity quota. 

I can’t tell people to not watch “Hamilton” on Friday or protest going to a musical they are already spending thousands of dollars on, but I can remind you to not blindly accept the bare minimum of racial representation in the entertainment industry. “Hamilton” deserves its recognition for trying to racially diversify the Broadway industry, however BIPOC deserve better storylines and opportunities to represent those who have fought for our country at the same time it constantly oppresses them. I’m not rejecting Lin-Manuel Miranda or the entirety of his work, but “Hamilton” should not be blindly praised without full knowledge of American history — this Broadway musical should not be your source of American history.