‘Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?’: Hamilton and the politics of representation revisited

Lin-Manuel Miranda as the titular character in Disney’s film production of Hamilton. Photo: Disney+/YouTube trailer
Published August 5, 2020

July 2020 will be remembered for many reasons, but for fans of musical theatre like me, it will be treasured as the time when the film of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster show Hamilton: An American Musical was released on Disney’s video streaming service. Hamilton opened on Broadway in February 2015; from its earliest days it has been both critically acclaimed and popularly embraced. It’s been on stage on Broadway, in London’s West End (where we were fortunate enough to see it in 2018), Chicago and on national tour. A production in Toronto opened in February 2020, only to be closed because of the pandemic. This film of the stage production had been slotted for a release to cinemas later in the year. Pandemic conditions changed the plan, so it was released in July 2020—delighting its fans everywhere.

If, somehow, you’ve missed all of the buzz about Hamilton, here’s a synopsis: it’s about one of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, an orphan immigrant from the Caribbean island Nevis, arrives in New York in 1772 and eventually becomes a leader in the American revolution, acting as secretary to General George Washington, later joining his cabinet as treasury secretary. Adapted from Ronald Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, the musical focusses on the relationship between Hamilton and his rival Aaron Burr. It depicts a time of political upheaval, battles, jealousies, duels—including a final one when Burr shoots and kills Hamilton—and of course, loves and losses. Miranda has created a gripping narrative, styled in two distinctive ways.

First, while employing the devices of the American musical theatre, Hamilton is sung—and rapped—through with little spoken dialogue. Miranda uses rap as recitative—giving flow to myriad events and dynamics. But the second device is even more gripping, controversial and ground-breaking: the cast is made up almost exclusively by Black, Latinx and Asian actors. “Our cast looks like America looks now, and that’s certainly intentional,” Miranda has said. “It’s a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” An article in the New Yorker magazine described Hamilton as “an achievement of historical and cultural reimagining.”

In many ways Hamilton is emblematic of the Obama presidency, a time when hopes ran high that a new era of racial equality would emerge because of the first African-American president. It was the politics of representation, based on the assumption that if racial and gender minorities were in positions of power, the system could change to bring about a greater sense of equality and harmony. But while representation is important, it’s not enough, as more recent events in this past year have shown. In fact, the release of the film version of Hamilton ignited a vigorous debate about the show’s biases, assumptions and blind spots.

A tweet in late June summed up the criticism: “Want to eliminate white supremacist revisionist history & symbols? Let’s include this revisionist & insulting nonsense represented by the play & now movie Hamilton! It’s…just the colonized dressed up as white folks.”

Not that Hamilton shies away from addressing the inadequacies of the American Revolution: Angelica Schuyler, sister of Hamilton’s wife Eliza, sings:

You want a revolution? I want a revelation
So listen to my declaration….
“We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all men are created equal”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson…
I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!

And in a cabinet battle, Hamilton confronts Thomas Jefferson:

A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor
Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting

But not only Jefferson, but also George Washington and even Hamilton’s wife’s family, the Schuylers, “owned” enslaved people. The history of slavery hangs over the United States much like the legacy of residential schools over life in Canada, touching the nerves of conscience. Consciences around the world were awakened with the brutal killing of George Floyd; the resulting Black Lives Matter protest movements brought the unresolved issues of restitution and truth telling in the US to the fore, just as similar protests in Canada highlighted issues of systemic racism. Clearly representation is not enough, but it’s a step—a baby step to be sure, in the revelation of deep systemic injustice. One wishes that in Hamilton, Miranda had included reference to Indigenous issues—as deep and troubling in the US as in Canada—and included indigenous actors in the production: the complete absence of this important part of the historical narrative is a glaring omission.

For me, the most affecting and lyrical moments of Hamilton come near the conclusion of the show when their son, Philip, is killed in a duel. Hamilton and his wife Eliza, estranged because of Alexander’s extramarital affair, are drawn back together in their grief. The song It’s Quiet Uptown describes the unimaginable grief that has united them once again:

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down

“The unimaginable”—the U.S. is going through an unimaginable time of grief and horror, with thousands dead and hundreds of thousands infected with the novel coronavirus. A tone-deaf executive branch of government lurches from crisis to crisis, with unemployment soaring, the economy in shambles and daily protests against racist discriminatory practices. The pandemic has laid bare a country deeply divided by an unresolved past which continues to provoke deep pain. The novel coronavirus is disproportionately killing minorities in the U.S.: For example, while only making up 12% of the population, Black people account for 22% of COVID-19 deaths in the country. In places like New York City, Latinx people are among the hardest hit by the virus: they make up nearly 34% of all deaths related to coronavirus, despite being 29% of the city’s population. In New Mexico, while only representing 11% of the total population, Native Americans comprise half of all COVID-19 deaths.

And lest Canadians feel that our more successful efforts to “flatten the curve” look with superiority upon our neighbours to the south, not only does the current pandemic disproportionally affect minorities and the poor, but our own colonial history needs to be more deeply understood and reparations made to all whose lives have been diminished because of it.

Repeatedly, Hamilton asks the question, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Knowing that it is spinning a narrative, Hamilton provokes deep reflection from its audience—what assumptions do we make about our histories? Who has been left out of the storytelling? Who is privileged, who is forgotten? In raising these questions, Hamilton offers viewers not only an extraordinary theatrical and now cinematic treatment, but an occasion to reflect on history and the present moment with an invitation to think about things differently.


  • Peter Elliott

    The Very Rev. Peter Elliott is adjunct faculty at Vancouver School of Theology. From 1994 to 2019 he served as dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

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