Some viewers were critical of writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, accusing him of downplaying slavery in his show and calling for Hamilton to be "canceled."
Miranda responded to the criticism on July 6 after briefly making his Twitter account private.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton musical has become an international sensation over the past five years, sweeping the 2016 Tony Awards and drawing top dollar for tickets. When the streaming platform Disney Plus unveiled the movie version over a year ahead of schedule on July 3, it earned new fans and delighted those who'd only gotten to hear the original cast perform on the original cast recording (aka the soundtrack).
But reaching a wider audience also brought a deluge of criticism amid the praise—including concerns about how the work lionized the United States' slave-owning founding fathers and didn't accurately portray history. Other Twitter users also took issue with Miranda using the n-word in two audiobooks, once while reading directly from a work by author Junot Diaz, and again while quoting his castmate Daveed Diggs in the pages his own book about Hamilton.
Following a July 3 viewing party on Twitter—during which Miranda watched along and shared reactions alongside fellow Twitter users—the writer and performer temporarily set his Twitter to private. While that move earned still more criticism from people who evidently wanted Miranda to immediately address the extremely complicated issues at hand on a night that was meant to celebrate Hamilton, he took a beat to formulate a response instead. In a July 6 tweet quoting thoughts from writer Tracy Clayton, Miranda acknowledged: "All the criticisms are valid."
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
"The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut," he continued, referring to the darker sides of the founding fathers' history, including the exploitative practice of chattel slave labor. "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."
The conversation about whether Hamilton is problematic began long before its debut on Disney Plus, even if it's taken on new weight amid the current debate over taking down Confederate monuments and the general whitewashing of American history. The discussion is not just about "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story," but whose story has gotten told.
Perhaps looming largest is the fact that, as the Washington Post explains, while Hamilton was indeed an abolitionist who didn't technically own any enslaved people, his close relationships with fellow founding fathers indicate that he somewhat partook in the system himself. George Washington, portrayed as Hamilton's father figure in the musical, owned nearly half of the over 300 enslaved people at his Mount Vernon home at the turn of the 18th century. Philip Schuyler, the Schuyler sisters' father, owned enslaved people as well. And, though slavery is mentioned throughout in Hamilton, there is no enslaved character with a voice in the show.
The fact the majority of the cast are people of color playing figures who were white in real life has been subject to debate as well—and not just by those claiming the productions' casting call for non-white actors is "reverse racism".
"Basically what the supposedly color-blind casting does, is it gives Hamilton, the show, the ability to say, 'Oh, we’re not just telling old, white history,'" historian Lyra Monteiro said in a 2016 Slate interview. "'This isn’t your stuffy old-school history that’s just praising white people. Look, we’ve got people of color in the cast. This is everybody’s story.' Which, it isn’t. It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative."
The counterpoint to that criticism, and one that Miranda has pointed out on his own Twitter feed, is the argument that Hamilton was a star-making vehicle for non-white actors who've often had a harder time finding equal opportunities on the Broadway stage. Standout performances earned Tony nominations for Black cast members Leslie Odom, Jr., Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and Renée Elise Goldsberry, as well as Chinese-American actress Phillipa Soo.
Hamilton's historical accuracy is the overarching point of debate. Miranda largely based the musical on an Alexander Hamilton biography written by historian Ron Chernow, who acted as a consultant for the show. In a 2015 interview with the Atlantic, Miranda said he chiefly aimed to craft an entertaining story, while remaining as true to what happened as possible. "My only responsibility as a playwright and a storyteller is to give you the time of your life in the theatre," Miranda said then. "I just happen to think that with Hamilton’s story, sticking close to the facts helps me. All the most interesting things in the show happened. They’re not s--- I made up."
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay is among the Hamilton fans who take issue with the idea that people can't parse out actual history while enjoying a piece of partly fictionalized art. "A Broadway musical ain’t a history book. I actually read those," DuVernay tweeted in response to a Twitter user who accused the 13th director of "celebrating a slave trader" by enjoying the musical. "So I understand the difference between a brilliantly rendered play and actual American history."
Huh? Hamilton traded enslaved Africans. Jefferson did. Washington did. Madison did. A Broadway musical ain’t a history book. I actually read those. So I understand the difference between a brilliantly rendered play and actual American history. Celebrating a slave trader? pic.twitter.com/g60thfWXp8
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) July 3, 2020
Ultimately, the "is Hamilton canceled?" debate raises a lot of questions that are difficult to answer—ones both specific to the project itself, and about any piece of art that's arguably problematic, yet loved by many. Twitter, where you'll find an ocean of "if you like this bad thing, you are also by extension bad" opinions, alongside the valid and thoughtful Hamilton critiques, is one place to broach that conversation—but it shouldn't be the only place we're having it.
A lot has happened since the musical was first created and staged—aka, the years before the 2016 election. And in a time when non-Black people are being encouraged to consider our own roles in upholding structural racism, Miranda does seem to be trying to do that himself: On May 31, he apologized for not denouncing white supremacy and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement on the official Hamilton social media platforms earlier.
"As the writer of this show, I take responsibility and apologize for my part in this moral failure," he said in the video. "Hamilton doesn't exist without the black and brown artists who created and revolutionized and changed the world through the culture, music and language of hip-hop, Literally, the idea of the show doesn't exist without the brilliant black and brown artists in our cast, crew and production team who breathe life into this story every time it's performed."
— Hamilton (@HamiltonMusical) May 31, 2020
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