By: Kevin Jordan
Raise your hand if you know more about Alexander Hamilton than 1) his face is on the ten dollar bill, 2) he created the United States’ central banking system, and 3) was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr. If your hand is up, go try out for Jeopardy! If your hand is down, congratulations on remembering the three Hamilton facts taught in U.S. public schools.
One of the problems with most history classes prior to college is they teach a sterile, abbreviated, and whitewashed version of history. This is not a problem exclusive to U.S. schools, but we are particularly bad about it. As our country deals with an out-of-control pandemic and crashing economy, we are also confronted with massive protests regarding racial inequality (to put it mildly). Again. Despite what certain senators from Arkansas and many people want to erase/ignore, the history of the U.S. is steeped in racist acts, the vast surface of which is barely scratched in history class. While some try to convince themselves and others that removing monuments to traitors (i.e. anyone who fought for the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War) is erasing history (it really is not), they are correct in saying those traitors are part of our history. I fully agree that we should teach children about Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Braxton Bragg, and other Confederates and how they committed treason in order to continue enslaving other human beings. That way, if future generations happen across an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard, they will ask why anyone thought it was okay to paint the battle flag of traitors on top of a car in a U.S. television sitcom. Good question, but they’ll have to ask it north of the Mason-Dixon line. Please tell me you know what the Mason-Dixon line is.
Hamilton is a great example of what a history lesson should look like. Well, the story at least. I do not expect teachers to produce elaborate stage plays of every major historical figure, especially since they have their hands full trying to figure out how to pay for classroom supplies while conducting active-shooter drills (wow, do we underpay and underappreciate teachers). Hamilton is two hours and forty minutes of history as it should be – thorough, engaging, and covering a narrow topic in depth, namely the adult life of Alexander Hamilton. On top of that, it is an exquisitely executed production that is more entertaining than half the popcorn flicks foisted upon us every year.
The first thing you need to know about Hamilton the movie is that it is nothing more than a filmed version of a Broadway performance from 2017 (with light editing for camera angles). If you were hoping for a Hollywood’ed version of the play, you probably think Zack Snyder is the pinnacle of directing and I cannot help you. For years, we have seen pre-movie ads for live operas and plays shown in movie theaters and I have always been skeptical they would be worth watching. It seemed to me that something would be lost in the film version that can only be experienced attending the performance in person. While there is something to be said about watching a movie/play/opera as part of a crowd, everything else worked great. In fact, watching the film version has the bonus of making you feel like you are in the front row. In other words, you can actually see the actor’s faces rather than squinting through binoculars to see things like facial expressions. Also, you can pause for bathroom breaks or snacks without interrupting the show or blocking other audience members. Yep, definitely worth watching this way.
As for the play itself, it is hard to think of a better show or performance, movie or stage play. The story itself is very well-written (adapted from a 2004 biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow), covering the major events of Hamilton’s life woven into moments in American history. It’s a fascinating look at the American Revolutionary War through the eyes of Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), covering George Washington (Christopher Jackson), Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), and even King George III (Jonathan Groff). The story gives us a look into Hamilton’s marriage to Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), his relationships with various historical figures, including Eliza’s sister Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), his background as an immigrant, his family life and son Philip (Anthony Ramos), his struggle to achieve his goals, his contribution to the foundational structure of America, his affair with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and, of course, his death. And all presented in song, in a genre sure to make queasy those folks who wrongly think the Civil War was about states’ rights.
I am also unendingly impressed by the cast’s ability to deliver one hundred sixty minutes of flawless song and acting (which goes for any stage production, for that matter). With all due respect to film actors, the level of difficulty for a stage play is simply another galaxy. If that wasn’t hard enough, Diggs, Onaodowan, Jones, and Ramos each played two different speaking-part characters. Mind. Blown. If I thought my clapping could be heard through the streaming service and back in time, I would have applauded from my couch. Perhaps my favorite part of the show is Groff’s portrayal of King George, (George was a lunatic, among other things), including spittle and crazy eyes. There is still a chance of my clapping right now.
There is one criticism I have, which is I did not particularly enjoy Miranda’s singing. He deserves all the credit possible for writing fantastic lyrics and a phenomenal play, but I doubt he would have made it past the auditions in American Idol. He was me singing in my car, but on key. It did not take away from the film for me, but it was noticeable given how many songs he sang.
But, I cannot stress enough how great was Hamilton or how relevant it is right now. One of the most important things about Hamilton is the fact that the majority of the cast are people of color cast in the roles of historical white people and it doesn’t fucking matter to the story. Just like it doesn’t fucking matter if the next James Bond is played by Idris Elba (yes, please!!), even if James Bond is fictional. What matters is that extremely talented actors deliver mesmerizing performances, giving historical voice and connection to those who are generally historically left behind. History books and paintings remain to ensure we know these historical figures were white men, just like we know Ghandi is Indian rather than Ben Kingsley white. Now, let’s get this into school.
Rating: Worth twice as much as the monthly Disney+ dues. For a year.