I’m admittedly a little late to Hamilton. Like millions of people across the globe, I dutifully logged into Disney+ over the weekend to watch the filmed version of the biggest play to hit Broadway since that musical about Mormons from the South Park guys.
The play was certainly entertaining. A number of songs and lyrics were catchy, and the idea of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson engaging in a rap battle to determine the size and scope of a new national banking system is both bananas and brilliant.
But considering the diversity of the cast and the progressive blanket creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda wraps around its central character, Hamilton disappointingly falls into a trap that ensnares most movies and shows about the American Revolution — an avoidance of slavery.
Other than one or two lines (including one zinger at Jefferson’s expense), the show largely avoids any discussion about the role slavery played in the formation of our county, despite three key characters — Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington — all being slaveholders.
That’s not to say these men didn’t also do great things (in Jefferson’s case, of course, that includes the writing of the Declaration of the Independence a block away from my pre-COVID-19 office in Center City). But that complexity of their characters and any serious acknowledgment that the founding of the country was as much a struggle over slavery as the Civil War was notably absent from Hamilton’s woke musical flow.
Instead, the play is in many ways just a dressed-up version of the same story about our Founding Fathers we’ve been taught and told since we were kids. As historian Lyra Monteiro put it, “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.”
To his credit, Miranda is very welcoming to criticism of his award-winning play. “All of the criticism are valid,” he wrote on Twitter this week in response writer Tracy Clayton, who complained the play lacked more context about Hamilton and slavery.
Apparently, Miranda had written a third rap battle scene involving Jefferson and Hamilton about slavery that he cut due to time. Reading the scene, I can see why it was nixed — it basically goes nowhere, since it would take the Civil War to end slavery, and another 100 years to grant civil rights to Black people in the South. But that’s also the point, and some acknowledgement of that complexity rather than ignoring it entirely would have lived up to Washington’s intimidating line to Hamilton in the musical: “History has its eyes on you.”