Reviewing “Hamilton” is like reviewing America itself. It is a force so powerful and complex it’s hard to look at it as a whole. The smash musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda debuted at the Public Theater in 2015 and was on Broadway eight months later. Now it arrives in our homes with a filmed version of the musical that debuted on Disney+ on July 3. Although I saw the show in 2018 and have listened to the original cast album probably a hundred times, I’ve never written about “Hamilton.” What can you say about a perfect work of art, anyway? As King George would say, “Awesome. Wow.”
Now that “Hamilton” has been delivered to the people, and the era in which it has been reborn is so drastically different from the one that birthed it, it’s a perfect time to reassess. It’s clearer than ever that “Hamilton” is not a timeless work, but a product of very specific time: the Obama Era. Telling the story of our Founding Fathers with hip-hop stylings and actors of color in every major role was a creative expression of the optimism that Obama promised. His election allowed us to reimagine what was racially possible in America, and “Hamilton” doubled down on that proposition, envisioning not just a new future but also a new past. It signaled that at least part of our racial trauma was behind us, even as it glossed over that which was still ahead.
Its optimism looks naive now, but it’s still irresistible. In terms of pure entertainment, “Hamilton” remains an absolute banger. The book effortlessly mixes styles, from hip-hop and reggae to pop and more traditional showtunes. Each performer is more talented than the last, and every one of them gets their turn to shine. The human drama is moving, and it makes the complexity of policy-making simple and engaging. It’s a riveting show that holds your attention for a solid three hours, and for those fortunate enough to have seen it onstage, the filmed version has added benefits. Director Thomas Kail deftly mixes wide shots and close-ups, capturing both the spectacle and the inner emotional lives of its characters.
But in the five years since it debuted onstage, the illusion of a post-racial society, so central to its appeal, has crashed and burned. It makes “Hamilton” a very different watch today. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are major characters, but the issue of slavery is noticeably elided, as is the genocide of Native Americans. Washington’s virtue is never questioned. Indeed, he’s heroic to an almost cartoonish degree. Jefferson’s slave wife Sally Hemings is played by a chorus girl. She has no dialogue and is only referred to once in the entire show.
The real victims of our Founding Fathers are ignored because Hamilton sees himself as the victim at all times, and the show is happy to indulge him in that (this would be the part where we discuss how the show is a hagiography not just of Hamilton but of Miranda himself, but that’s another article). This was passable in 2015, but it’s not in 2020. At a time when more Americans than ever are willing to tear down statues of Washington and Jefferson, why does “Hamilton” get a pass? Progressive casting aside, “Hamilton” exists mostly to further deify our Founding Fathers, shining a light on their virtues and leaving their fundamental flaws, the ones that are currently under intense scrutiny offstage, in the shadows.
So why aren’t we tearing it down? Why does “Hamilton” still feel so unimpeachable? Maybe it’s only because statues are an antiquated art form, whereas hip-hop musicals are the language of today. We’re willing to forgive a lot when a text feels as timely and vital as this. Others have argued that casting actors of color is enough. It’s an implicit challenge to the viewer to reckon with the racial elements left unsaid, although that’s a little like dubiously arguing the best way to listen to jazz is to hear the notes they’re not playing.
Maybe “Hamilton” has been largely immune from criticism because it’s part of an ancient American tradition: dressing up continued racial oppression like progress.. As slavery morphed into Jim Crow, and Jim Crow evolved into our system of mass incarceration, we have learned to condone systemic racism, as long as it is slightly better than what has come before. Watching “Hamilton” at home, where my mind was not dulled by the spectacle, that’s what it looks like to me: The status quo with a new coat of paint. A dazzling retelling of America’s origin song that celebrates slavers and ignores their misdeeds. The words may have changed but the tune remains firmly, frustratingly the same.