Judged only on its entertainment value, the filmed version of “Hamilton” that arrives this holiday weekend on the Disney+ streaming service would still be one of the biggest screen events of this pandemic-bound summer.
While no TV production can offer the kind of transcendence one experiences sitting in a theater with hundreds of others during one of those magical moments when a great play takes us to another time, place and sometimes plane of consciousness, this version of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, filmed in 2016 with the original Broadway cast, comes as close to capturing the energy and joy of such theatrical moments as any TV staging or film of a production that I have seen. As entertainment, that is more than good enough for me.
Beyond the entertainment value of this musical, though, is its tremendous cultural role in telling a story of our nation’s founders at a time when we are profoundly engaged in examining our shared past in terms of race, power and remembrance. Looking at our history through the eyes of today, we are deciding in real and concrete ways this summer which statues of our national ancestry should or should not be allowed to stand among us. That is especially true of the 18th century men referred to as our founding fathers. The sometimes contentious discussions and real actions of taking down statues as a result are being held in cities coast to coast with nothing less than our sense of identity in play.
In the timeline of America, the 18th century is where the racism, sexism and class inequity gets baked into our DNA. And the founders celebrated in “Hamilton” are the lead bakers.
In an entertainment and business sense, the timing of this film’s debut on Disney+ this holiday weekend seems excellent. Disney had planned to debut the film in October 2021, according to the New York Times. But the pandemic, which has changed everything in the entertainment industry the last four months, rages on. Instead of going to the beach, theme parks or concerts, millions of us will be at home looking for entertainment options.
“ In this very difficult time, the story of leadership, tenacity, hope, love & the power of the people to unite against adversity is both relevant and inspiring,” Robert Iger, executive chairman of Disney, wrote on Twitter giving the decision some corporate spin.
I am guessing some people will share Iger’s reading of the film. But the arrival of “Hamilton” on-screen this summer of reckoning is so much more complicated than that.
It seems as if Lin-Manuel Miranda — star, writer and composer of “Hamilton” — is hoping some viewers will watch the Disney+ production with an awareness of how this history from 1776 connects to the nation we are in this summer of 2020.
Before the musical starts, viewers are shown 81 seconds of introduction with Miranda and director Thomas Kail talking to the camera separately, contextualizing what’s to come.
“So much of what ‘Hamilton’ is about is how history remembers and how that changes over time,” Miranda says.
In the larger culture, one of the most important aspects of that remembrance today is the role founders like Hamilton played in slavery.
Ron Chernow, the historian and National Book Award winner, who wrote the biography that inspired “Hamilton,” says in his book that Hamilton was an “uncompromising abolitionist.” Miranda went with that characterization in his musical.
But that’s one historian’s analysis. Others disagree.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed said she liked the play and called Miranda a “genius,” but she also raised historical questions about the Hamilton depicted onstage, according to the Harvard Gazette.
“In the sense of the Ellis Island immigrant narrative, he was not an immigrant. He was not pro-immigrant, either,” she is quoted as saying. “He was not an abolitionist. He bought and sold slaves for his in-laws, and opposing slavery was never at the forefront of his agenda. He was not a champion of the little guy, like the show portrays. He was elitist. He was in favor of having a president for life.”
In an article in “The Public Historian” journal titled “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” Lyra D. Monteiro writes, “While Hamilton himself may not have owned slaves, he certainly was linked to transactions involving them, including hiring them from their owners to do work for him.” The author describes it as a “fact” that “members of his wife’s family were major slave owners.”
Facts and details matter, as we are being reminded on an almost daily basis by our president’s unwillingness to deal with them and the massive problems that creates for the nation.
Here is a Founding Father detail that I didn’t know about the man who was a patron to Hamilton.
“Did you know that George Washington had only one tooth in his mouth when he became president in 1789, as a result of bad health and 18th-century dentistry?” Michele L. Norris wrote in a recent Washington Post piece. “But his false teeth were not made of wood, as is often described in folk songs and lore. His dentures were made from the pulled teeth of slaves. Roll that around in your head for a minute.”
I knew about the bad teeth and I knew that Washington and his wife, Martha, had enslaved hundreds of people, but I didn’t know about the source of his dentures. And I have a Ph.D. in American Studies and did research at that level on Washington’s image in media of his day.
As I screened the Disney film this week and watched the scene in which Washington gives a Hamilton his big professional break making the young man his aide during the Revolutionary War, my mind kept returning to that dental detail.
History is complicated. Facts are often hard to nail down through the mist of time and loss of documentary evidence. An article linked to in the piece by Norris, titled “Did George Washington’s false teeth come from his slaves?: A look at the evidence, the responses to that evidence, and the limitations of history,” attests to that.
And then come the interpretations, like Chernow saying Hamilton was an “uncompromising abolitionist.” The only way that seems remotely accurate to me is if you are looking at Hamilton’s relationship to slavery through 18th century eyes. And even then, I think it is a stretch. But we are looking at the lives and monuments of our founders this summer through the eyes of today as we must in this watershed moment if we want to do an honest and long-overdue reckoning with our past.
Going with one historian’s interpretation as Miranda appears to have done with Chernow is problematic. Academic historians first do a literature review of everything on the topic, which involves reviewing the research and interpretations of multiple historians. Even in the kind of television history that Ken Burns does for PBS, the filmmaker includes an array of historians with expertise on the person or topic he is exploring in an effort at historical accuracy.
But that’s not the primary concern of an entertainment product made for the stage or screen. And “Hamilton” is first and foremost an entertainment product ― one of the most dazzling and successful products of the century.
How much do I admire this musical and the man who created it? I believe Miranda is our William Shakespeare and that his words are every bit as elevated, poetic and culturally charged as the iambic pentameter that has delighted and enlightened human beings since the Elizabethan age.
But that does not make “Hamilton” great history. And even as we let ourselves be swept up in the dancing, rapping, swirling, singing and boot-stomping pageantry of “Hamilton” on Disney+ this 4th of July weekend, we need to remember that distinction.
We need great history this summer to inform our great cultural debate. We need to know who we have really been these last 244 years, to understand who we truly are today and what we might become as a nation if we work at trying to be better.