Up Next

Commentary

Five years ago, ‘Hamilton’ turned a revolution into a revelation — what now?

As Black Lives Matter protesters fill the streets, a show that portrays the Founding Fathers as Black and brown men gets its first national broadcast

America is in the midst of a massive project of recontextualizing itself — you might even call it a cultural revolution.

Part of this revolution includes tearing down, removing or altering monuments to white supremacist violence, from statues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Confederate general Robert E. Lee and President Andrew Jackson to “The Star-Spangled Banner” scribe Francis Scott Key.

And in this new world in which many white Americans are waking up to what Black people have long known, lands a wide release of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical theater project, which recontextualizes the country’s Founding Fathers, but especially its first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, which premiered at New York’s Public Theater in February 2015 before transferring to Broadway, will be available to stream July 3 on Disney+, the eve of the country’s 244th birthday. (Disney owns The Undefeated.)

The film is not an adaptation, but a recording of Hamilton as performed by its original Broadway cast, including Miranda as Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler. Finally, millions of Americans will have access to one of the hardest-to-get tickets in theater, a show that many people have been paying hundreds of dollars to see live. And they’ll be able to do so during a pandemic that has shuttered New York’s theaters since March.

The Broadway cast of Hamilton performs music from the production for President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and other guests in the East Room of the White House on March 14, 2016.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Hamilton first stormed into the public’s consciousness, the tea party dominated the contemporary image of tricorn hats and buff-and-blue colonial garb. It was a movement informed, especially in the South, by white antipathy for the country’s first Black president, Barack Obama, while being framed in the language of love of country, hence the name Tea Party Patriots.

Yet in the same period, the Puerto Rican and very much American Miranda staged this multicultural paean to Hamilton, Burr, Washington, Jefferson and Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, whom Miranda labeled “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” These characters wore uniforms not unlike those of the Tea Party Patriots, but the people wearing them were Black and brown. And in a sign of both the show’s popularity and its significance, the actors who portrayed them were repeatedly welcomed to the White House.

Diggs summed up the significance of one of those moments during a 2016 panel promoting the PBS documentary Hamilton’s America:

“The most iconic moment for me is still when Chris [Jackson] is singing ‘One Last Time.’ Behind him is a portrait of George Washington, and here’s Chris Jackson playing George Washington, sitting right in front of him is Barack Obama, who is in his last term as president, our first Black president in his last term as president, watching a Black man playing the first president, singing about deciding that presidents would have last terms, in front of a portrait of the first president that he’s playing. You saw all of American history at one time. I cried. Everybody cried.”

The culture war over how we think about the Founding Fathers has been fought on terms that are often populated by straw men. One school of thought demands that patriotism is best expressed by loving our enormously flawed Founding Fathers and viewing the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights as another bible, not to be questioned or challenged.

This framing informs views of patriotism, such as the paintings of Jon McNaughton, with their insistence on standing with one’s hat off and a hand placed over one’s heart during the national anthem. One of my favorite sendups of this sort of America-worship is Gene Hackman’s depiction of a fictional U.S. senator, Kevin Keeley, in the 1996 film The Birdcage, in which Hackman begins to drift off into a cloud of romance as he lists the various things he loves about the country.

Activists attend the Tea Party Patriots’ “Continuing Revolution” rally on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Of course, this is not the only definition of patriotism, which is why protesters currently occupying the nation’s streets cry out, “This is what democracy looks like!” In the words of James Baldwin, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Part of the revolutionary work of Hamilton is that it provides a sense of joyful, celebratory ownership of a country in which citizenship has been, officially and unofficially, so often conflated with whiteness. When I voted in 2016, I went to my polling place with the Hamilton cast recording blasting in my ears, relishing the opportunity to, as Miranda wrote, “include women in the sequel.” On July 4, 2018, I came back to the cast recording again to commemorate seeing a plaque at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, informing visitors the site was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. They were two instances in my life when I felt intensely and proudly American.

But there’s something else radical about Hamilton, which is that through its casting requirements, it deliberately injects people of color into positions of official and institutional power that have long been defined as the dominion of white men.

Protesters pulled the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis down in Richmond, Virginia, on June 10.

PARKER MICHELS-BOYCE/AFP via Getty Images

So what happens now, when Hamilton once again enters the cultural conversation, with access to it democratized by a streaming service one can purchase for less than $10? And this time, we’re in a moment in which Black people are demanding an equitable and just share of power, and their right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. What happens when the country at large, and not just a select audience of well-monied theatergoers, get swept into the passion, yearning and romance that Miranda’s songwriting makes so deliciously infectious?

Hamilton proffers an America in which Black and brown people hold an equitable share of power and resources. It’s a timely and relevant text for this moment of revolution. Take for example, “You’ll Be Back.” It’s astonishing how much those who justified the president’s call to send troops to quell protests in American cities sound like King George III of England, played as a foppish know-it-all by Jonathan Groff.

Sings ol’ George to the rebellious colonists:

You’ll remember that I served you well
Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!

Most recently, the image of the Ferguson, Missouri, protester Edward Crawford bloomed in my mind’s eye as I relistened to the cast album. In “Right Hand Man,” an electrified Hamilton proposes stealing British cannons and using them against the invading redcoats.

Crawford remains enshrined in American history because of a photograph by Robert Cohen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In it, Crawford wears the Stars and Stripes on a T-shirt as he hurls a tear gas canister back at a police force that has declared war on its own community.

In this moment, perhaps Hamilton can become more than just a classic American musical, joining the ranks of West Side Story and Porgy and Bess as works (however flawed they may be) that sought to affirm and preserve Black and brown people within the nation’s cultural firmament. Perhaps it can also act as an antidote to white fear as it reminds the public that Black and brown people — just like Hamilton’s titular “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” — are not throwing away their shot.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.