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Television Critics Association

Television Critics Association Diary, Day 2: All ‘Hamilton’ Everything

Daveed Diggs talks ‘Hamilton’s America’ and PBS talks ‘The Talk’

There was a moment Thursday at PBS’ Television Critics Association (TCA) presentation here at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles that perfectly illustrated what the Obama administration has done for arts appreciation in America.

“Every time you meet the president, you’re in a receiving line, so we were meeting the president and first lady for the third time, and when they say your name before you say theirs, that’s crazy,” actor Daveed Diggs said. “When Barack Obama comes up to you and says, ‘Daveed, how are you?’ — WHAT?!”

PBS is absolutely a beneficiary of this shift in our culture, because the nerdy network has become part of the cool kids club, simply by continuing to be itself. PBS is now in possession of what’s expected to be one of the most popular and highly anticipated documentaries of the year: Hamilton’s America.

“When Barack Obama comes up to you and says, ‘Daveed, how are you?’ — WHAT?!” — Daveed Diggs

Hamilton’s America, from filmmaker Alex Horwitz, is not just a behind-the-scenes look at what happened during the conception and staging of Hamilton. It’s about putting both the show and Alexander Hamilton himself in a modern context. The documentary features interviews with Stephen Sondheim, Nas, and President Barack Obama. The reason Hamilton’s America exists is because Horwitz, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Wesleyan University college roommate, asked if he could document Miranda as he went through the process of making what, at the time, Miranda thought would be a concept album. Miranda, not knowing what lay ahead, shrugged and said OK, and Horwitz was there to capture what amounts to Broadway Beatlemania.

The documentary promises to deliver to many the closest and most extensive look at Hamilton that they’ll ever have. The film features generous amounts of performance footage such as Leslie Odom Jr.’s electric rendition of the song The Room Where it Happens. But Hamilton’s America also offers more evidence of the Obamas’ genuine passion and love of the arts with footage of the Hamilton company’s visit to the White House. Call it presidential fandom.

David Horn, from left, Daveed Diggs and Alex Horwitz participate in the "Hamilton'

David Horn, from left, Daveed Diggs and Alex Horwitz participate in the “Hamilton’s America” panel during the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour on Thursday, July 28, 2016, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

“The most iconic moment for me is still when Chris [Jackson] is singing One Last Time,” Diggs said on the panel. “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.”

PBS invested in Miranda with 2009’s In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams, which was produced by member station WNET and became part of its Great Performances series. Now, it gets to reap the benefits. Not only is the network presenting the closely guarded Hamilton documentary, but Miranda is hosting the PBS Arts Fall Festival programming, which opens Oct. 21 with the doc.

PBS has become part of the cool kids club, simply by continuing to be itself.

So what else happened?

PBS chief executive Paula Kerger, who’s been in her job for 10 years now, addressed the state of the network as a whole and offered some reflection on her tenure. Reporters directed at least three questions at Kerger — all aimed at gleaning her thoughts about the upcoming election — given that PBS has a unique reliance on money from the federal government. Fifteen percent of PBS’ budget for local PBS stations comes from its federal subsidy. Remember in 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared during a television debate that he would eliminate PBS’ subsidy. One person asked quite directly which presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, would be better for PBS. Kerger kept her remarks apolitical: “Since no one has actually spoken about Public Broadcasting,” she said, “I think we just have to do what we can to ensure that people understand who we are.”

The Talk

PBS has a documentary — currently in production and slated to air in 2017 — about “The Talk,” which is the conversation black parents have with their children about how to survive an encounter with police. Because of its timeliness, reporters asked if there was any chance that the two-hour documentary would be pushed up to this fall. The answer from executive producer Julie Anderson suggested that the network could be open, but the schedule as it stands is quite packed.

The Talk will feature five different segments — including one from Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton —woven together with commentary from celebrities such as Rosie Perez and Nas. The film also features interviews with Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was killed by police in 2014, and Trevena Garel, a retired sergeant from the New York Police Department. Rice was present at the TCA panel discussion for The Talk, and Anderson said that PBS was looking at arranging conversations around the film throughout the country in order to avoid the stasis of simply broadcasting a two-hour documentary and then moving on.

“The conversation that needs to be held in America right now is definitely [about] racism,” said Tamir Rice’s mother. “It needs to happen, or America is going to crumble right in front of your eyes.”

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.