Hamilton on the Wrong Side of Cinema

Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton performs during the Tony Awards in New York City in 2016. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
A monument to political egotism self-destructs.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D isney’s presentation of the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton marks a curious cultural turning point: The most heralded production in recent Broadway history has not been adapted into a movie — it’s a digital video recording of a 2016 stage performance — because it has to live up to its hype as an exclusive Broadway event. Hamilton’s celebration by elite media cadres contradicts the essence of cinema as an emotionally intense, unifying popular art form. This version happens at, literally, an emotional and intellectual distance.

Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived a treatment of the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers and the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States, to be a showcase of Broadway theater diversity. He followed legendary impresario Joseph Papp’s idea of multicultural, non-traditional performance that broadened the Western theatrical canon by asserting America’s ethnic variety (Papp’s gimmicky casting of Shakespeare in the Park productions). Hamilton recast American history as a racial gimmick: The white Founding Fathers are portrayed by black and Latino actors — an obtuse means of reclaiming American history not for “everyone” but for us vs. them.

This literal narrowcasting is ideological. Miranda first presented his show in 2015, during the second term of Barack Obama’s presidency, in observance of that era’s arrogant sense of new social authority — and the vanity Miranda no doubt felt as a Puerto-Rican theater aspirant finally finding a niche. Miranda uses hip-hop musical idioms in Hamilton according to the same specious perception of Obama’s identity as African American, or black, rather than as bi-racial. (There are allusions to Hamilton’s own cloudy background.) This novelty pretended to speak for non-white America, and in Disney’s video intro Miranda says, “It’s about how history remembers and how that changes over time.” That’s a theater hustler’s demagoguery.

Hamilton’s topsy-turvy spectacle recalls the racial reversal Jean Genet originated in The Blacks (1959), only Genet’s overt political intent (his mockery of colonial racism) is subsumed by the energy of hip-hop and its superficial polemics. Musical-theater people are squares who, adept at their own rich traditions, never get the gist of such pop music as rhythm & blues, rock & roll, disco, or hip-hop. They don’t know the hip-hop genre’s great artists Public Enemy, Biggie Smalls, The Geto Boys, Son of Bazerk and De La Soul. What you hear in Miranda’s Hamilton is ersatz hip-hop, which easily won over critics and audiences already in denial that Obama was bi-racial and eager to accept Miranda’s blackface revision of American history.

Miranda’s cynicism automatically dismisses the idea of a show about Pan-African or Puerto-Rican history. (The Boriqueneers to match Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers?) Instead, the concept behind Hamilton — to make its squareness seem hip — is to sell the American Revolution in updated, anachronistic, slangy terms that will appeal to notions of revolution spouted by hip-hop’s most naive adherents. That would include the “fundamentally transform America” Obama admirers. (There’s even a pro-DACA song. Is there anyone waiting to see this show who is not a dyed-in-the-wool Obama liberal?)

Let’s include hip-hop haters who deplore the genre’s inherent youthful impudence, sensuality, and déclassé roots. Miranda’s music and lyrics most closely resemble the speed-rap of white rapper Eminem — a neurotic, distorted appropriation of hip-hop’s blues and reggae source. Miranda chooses a vernacular that betrays black expression every bit as much as a smoothly duplicitous, over-educated politician does. This linguistic jumble accounts for the play’s expository rather than dramatic nature. We watch Hamilton (played by Miranda) come to 18th-century America and enter the early political fray where he meets his ultimate nemesis Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.) no differently than an episode of MTV’s Wild and Out.

The show alternates between battle-rap encounters and minstrel-style solos. Thankfully, the appearance of the Schuyler Sisters (Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephus Jones), as women Hamilton and Burr engage on their journey toward historical destiny, offers vocal variety — always sung with genuine loveliness and persuasion. But even the Schuyler sisters, cast as three ethnically different, miscegenated phenotypes (Asian, black, Latin), perpetuate Miranda’s unceasing fake hip-hop and race-and-politics trickery. The show’s non-traditional casting obsession clashes with the limitations of today’s nutty progressivism that says actors can no longer pretend to be who they are not.

Hamilton’s race confusion hits unignorable dead-ends. Miranda’s unprepossessing lead performance depends on whiny hectoring, rather than brainy charisma; the role needs a star, and this film doesn’t have one. As England’s King George (Jonathan Groff), the single white performer diverts from hip-hop, reprising snide, Alanis Morissette-style pop as a foppish queer stereotype. Such trite characterization oversimplifies political history. Burr’s “Smile more/Don’t let them know what you’re against/Or what you’re for” flatters today’s cynicism about politics — politics has replaced movies as everyone’s expertise.

“No one really knows how the game is played,” Burr raps in “The Room Where It Happened,” the elites’ anthem that John Bolton chose as the title for his latest memoir. The song’s actually about deceit and disloyalty (the “Click—Boom!” line implying deadly threat). Something this odious also needs a star, a Sammy Davis, Jr., to pull it off but not sullen, grinning Odom. Odom’s Burr, who kills Hamilton in American history’s most famous duel, is another dark-skinned villain — like Taye Diggs’s evil landlord in Rent — who here personifies the insidious racism that even Broadway liberals keep hidden behind their public pandering.

By comparison, both Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were modest about their subjects. Miranda’s ode to power pretends Hamilton’s drive is psychological insight and idolizes political chicanery the same as the Steven Spielberg–Tony Kushner Lincoln. Shameless Act Two features one song describing “a grace too powerful to name/We push away the unimaginable/Forgiveness. Can you imagine?” It proposes a humanism that is gone from the culture Hamilton represents; that’s why the scene and that song are weak. The show’s celebration of ruthlessness is seen as its justification — that 2008 idea of worshipping the purported political brilliance of an obnoxious individual.

Director Thomas Kail inserts a few bird’s-eye-views but never offers a single expressive image (Spike Lee’s film of the stage play Passing Strange was shot more effectively, and Julie Taymor’s visually wondrous A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the best unreleased American movie of the past ten years). This is not a film but an official preservation. It’s a great irony that Disney’s Hamilton streaming comes at a time of historical ignorance when institutional leaders, politicians, and media all condone the tearing down of history. Miranda’s vainglorious Hamilton edifice amounts to the same thing.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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