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With ‘Hamilton’ now a movie, an old debate reignites about who tells its story

The cast of "Hamilton" at the Tony Awards in 2016.
The cast of “Hamilton” performs during the 70th Tony Awards in 2016.
(Theo Wargo / Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Cancel culture doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints; it takes and it takes and it takes.

The #CancelHamilton hashtag bubbled up on Twitter on Sunday, just two days after the “Hamilton” movie adaptation of the Broadway musical hit streaming service Disney+. to great fanfare.

Critics across the board have taken issue with a whole host of perceived problems, including the erasure of Black and Indigenous people to claims of revisionist history.

Reactions to the controversy have been mixed. One Twitter user tweeted a thread with the hashtag and contrasted pushes to remove Confederate flags and monuments with her take that “on the other hand, we’re really going to read insights from Black people explaining the problematic aspects within Hamilton that whitewash American history and minimize the truth of slavery and say ‘it’s just a play, don’t erase my entertainment’?”

Sure, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ was a massive box office success worldwide, but still, many people will see it for the first time on Disney+.

But most people tweeting the hashtag, it seemed, spoke out in outraged opposition to the sentiment — and to cancel culture. Another Twitter user clapped back that “the fact that #cancelhamilton is a real thing should just show how insane cancel culture is. It’s a musical, not a history textbook.”

When writer Tracy Clayton joined the conversation, praising the current dialogue around the controversy, “Hamilton” creator and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda responded with an open-hearted attitude to constructive criticism.

“All the criticisms are valid,” he tweeted on July 6. “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.”

But this backlash is nothing new. In fact, it’s been happening at least since playwright and poet Ishmael Reed slammed the musical in August 2015, just six months after its Off-Broadway premiere.

The life of Alexander Hamilton, he wrote for CounterPunch magazine, “has been scrubbed with a kind of historical Ajax until it sparkles.”

In the article, “‘Hamilton: The Musical:’ Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders… and It’s Not Halloween,” Reed argued that Hamilton himself was simply not the abolitionist that Miranda makes him out to be. (The Founding Father did, in fact, participate in the slave trade.)

Reed so opposed issues such as the composer’s use of genres rooted in Black history — rock ‘n’ roll, rap and hip-hop — that he went so far as to write a response play: “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, left, and Leslie Odom Jr. in "Hamilton."
(Disney+)

But as Reed told the Observer in 2019, “Somebody wrote that I hated ‘Hamilton,’ but I really let Miranda off the hook. He’s really a sympathetic figure in my play.”

The playwright seemed to focus his energy on the racist acts of Hamilton the man, rather than “Hamilton” the musical. Yet when the ghosts of those excluded from the show — including enslaved Africans and Native Americans — visit Manuel’s character, Reed is echoing a long line of critics.

Indeed, much of the #CancelHamilton debate boils down to the fact that, while the critiques themselves haven’t changed much over the years, the social and political moment has. The current crises of anti-Blackness and police violence in America fall more in line with radical change than the “multicultural patriotism” portrayed by the show five years ago.

In February 2016, Lyra D. Monteiro found the idea of the show representing “Obama’s America” problematic. The expert in early U.S. history and race and ethnic identity argued that the decision to cast Black and brown actors virtually erased any actually African American characters in an essay titled “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.”

Two months later, the New York Times referenced Monteiro’s work in a piece that asked whether the musical painted an accurate portrayal of the politician. Published less than half a year after the 2016 election, the article points out that:

“While the most recent critiques of ‘Hamilton’ have focused on race, some scholars have also noted that it’s an odd moment for the public to embrace an unabashed elitist who liked big banks, mistrusted the masses and at one point called for a monarchal presidency and a Senate that served for life.”

A video of a little girl declaring, “It’s me!” while watching Phillipa Soo in “Hamilton” is melting hearts and sparking conversations about representation.

The New York Times article also nodded to the work of historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who contended first, that she was a fan, but second, that she found the depictions of the founders and their involvement with slavery problematic.

More recently, she chimed into the #CancelHamilton Twitter debate with the sound analysis that: “We don’t do enough movies, plays, TV shows about… Early America. That’s why people have such high expectations for a production like #Hamilton. The same often happens with movies about black life. The movie is supposed to show everything, and it can’t do that and be any good.”

She’s not alone: A large slice of the discussion critiques the founders themselves, but separates fact from fiction.

Those roots run deep too. Scholars on an early American history blog in 2015 thought that Miranda got the most important historical facts right (Ron Chernow, the author of the biography that Miranda based the story on, did fact check the show), and deftly wielded artistic license to highlight human interaction.

Preeminent Hamilton scholar Joanne B. Freeman admitted in 2015 that the musical was in no way perfect in its telling of the man’s life and times but that that wasn’t the point. Rather, it was meant to humanize the past and place it in conversation with the present.

Jasmine Cephas Jones, Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry in "Hamilton."
Jasmine Cephas Jones, left, Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry in “Hamilton.”
(Disney+)

In a 2016 piece resurfaced by the current debate, Vox writer Aja Romano cited Tumblr user thequintessentialqueer’s contention that “Hamilton’s” purpose “is not to romanticize real American history: rather, it is to reclaim the narrative of America for people of colour… If you’re watching/listening to Hamilton and then going out and romanticizing the real founding fathers/American revolutionaries, you’re missing the entire point.”

The Vox piece views “Hamilton” as a masterful piece of fan fiction intended to recast and transform history for the sake of marginalized identities. Miranda himself has written that, “History is entirely created by the person who tells the story.”

“Hamilton” is a beautiful piece of political art, but — as New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum pointed out — it is just that: neither a history textbook nor an abolitionist manual. Miranda interprets history as he sees fit, a personal choice that chooses to put people of color back in the narrative.


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