The Broadway smash Hamilton’s release on Disney+ last weekend reminded its fans of the show’s transcendence and theatrical greatness. Its accomplishments as a genre-bending hip-hop opera are undeniable four years after it became an enormous hit.
However, the current moment has many critics talking about the show’s politics in a less favorable light—particularly the whitewashing of prominent slave owners who founded the United States and glorification of men and systems now understood to be inherently racist and classist.
I don't understand the pushback against people "hating" Hamilton when we are literally in the midst of an uprising that is against what Hamilton literally built.
— Genie Lauren (@MoreAndAgain) July 3, 2020
Many of the criticisms being levied against Hamilton today were voiced during the height of the show’s popularity in 2016, too. Lyra Monteiro wrote about the show’s potentially problematic choice to use Black and brown actors to portray white history. Several critics knocked the show’s lack of mention or real discussion of slavery. Others, like Jame McMaster, pointed out the musical’s weak feminism and ties to the right wing “bootstraps immigration narrative.” And Gene Demby noted the show’s overwhelmingly white audience when he saw the musical in 2016.
It’s odd to say just four years later, but Hamilton was a product of its time. Racial tensions weren’t great in 2015 when the show became a hit—Black Lives Matter was in its infancy and the nation was just coming around to the issues of police violence and murdering innocent Black people. With Barack Obama in the White House while Lin Manuel-Miranda spent the prior six years writing the musical, there was hope and optimism for racial equity and progress in the United States. That progress ultimately proved hollow, as did whatever racial progress Hamilton signaled for the predominantly white, affluent audiences that took it in during its theatrical run.
Renewed examination of exalted founding fathers like Hamilton and the systems they built, however, isn’t favorable for a musical that exalts them. Hamilton is a work of art and fiction that should be absorbed as such. It still perpetuates mythological stereotypes about American history, including personality tropes for its major players (Washington was apolitical, Burr was a power-hungry opportunist). Its glancing mentions of slavery when dealing directly with slave owners and the founding of a country defined by slavery is a bad look at the very least. We know now (or understand a little better) how these men and their stories have been whitewashed over the past two centuries. Even if you appreciate their accomplishments and believe in what they created, their inherent moral flaws and perpetuation of a racist, enslaving caste system deserve equal weight. Those flaws not receiving enough scrutiny in a musical performed by POC is a misstep, even just a few years after the show became a sensation.
Hamilton still holds enormous significance as a theatrical achievement. Its writing, music, and performances are top notch, and it was a major leap for racial representation on Broadway. Creating one of the most successful musicals of all-time with an almost all-Black cast performing hip-hop is a tremendous achievement. The musical has moved onto several markets and will retain its cult status forever. But the show is still open to criticism from several directions, and even its creator knows it.