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Hamilton and Subversion

Image from Disney+ Award-winning musical Hamilton, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, made its way to Disney+ this 3rd of July. It recounts the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton through a modern and relevant lens that encourages diversity and preaches inclusivity. In many ways, Hamilton reflects on issues of immigration and racism, present then and now, and subverts the longstanding hegemony that places citizens above immigrants, and White above Black, empowering those at the sidelines to embrace agency in their own stories.

What’d I Miss – Cultural Identity and Transracialism

Hamilton emerged at a time of cultural identity exploration, when the concept of “transracialism,” or identifying and presenting oneself as a different race than their birth race, is being explored and debated. When former NAACP president Rachel Dolezal was revealed to be a White woman by birth, the idea that a person of one race would identify with another race caused an uproar. The cast of Hamilton breaks down racial and gender casting barriers by transracializing the founding fathers and other revolutionary players, not only diversifying its cast but bringing a whole new meaning to its premise. While the concept of transracialism is controversial, Hamilton utilizes it in a progressive manner, pointing out that much like the cast, the founding fathers and those who fought in the Revolutionary War were immigrants. The musical is a story about immigrants fighting for freedom and autonomy, a fight that closely mirrors the anti-xenophobic movement in the U.S. For instance, Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette sing, “Immigrants, we get the job done,” a clear message that transcends the plot and speaks out against anti-immigrant sentiment. The characters are played by Lin-Manuel Miranda (the son of Puerto Rican immigrants) and Daveed Diggs (who is half Jewish, half African American, and a descendant of immigrants), respectively, a fact that holds weight beyond the characters’ stories and bleeds into current times. While transracialism is more controversial when caucasian people present themselves as BIPOC (as evidenced by Rachel Dolezal’s story), since they benefit from their whiteness and a system that protects whiteness, the reverse is a statement of defiance and equality. For instance, recent years have seen the release of live-action versions of Disney classics such as Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Cinderella (2015), with all-white protagonists and very few BIPOC characters. These didn’t cause much controversy despite their lack of diversity. However, the recent announcement of a live-action version of The Little Mermaid caused an uproar when the public found out that Halle Bailey, a Black woman, would be playing Ariel. Since Ariel’s race/ethnicity is not relevant to the story, casting a Black woman should not have been an issue, but the polarizing reactions of the public show that BIPOC representation only seems to be acceptable when the characters are specifically designated to be of a certain background, and changing an established character’s race, though of no significance to the plotline, reveals the inferential racism present in the media.

 

To assume that a character is white by default is a microaggression, and Hamilton defies that belief by proving that diversification can speak volumes and positively affect the cultural discourse.

Another Immigrant Comin’ Up From the Bottom—Now We’re Here

Another noteworthy element that has contributed to Hamilton’s success is its usage of hip-hop music, an unprecedented phenomenon in award-winning Broadway musicals. Hip-hop arose in the Bronx at a time of decreased resources for mainly Black and Latin American inner-city communities, which saw increased poverty and crime (check out this educational article on the history of hip-hop: The Historical Roots of Hip Hop). Music served as a creative form of cultural expression for marginalized communities, and although it has gained popularity since its inception, hip-hop largely remains a countercultural form of alternative discourse. Hamilton’s usage of hip-hop then contributes to its revolutionary message, elevating its advocacy for marginalized immigrant communities and its denunciation of racism, xenophobia, and the current white male-centric hegemony. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s clever rhyming and interjection of current issues into a story dating back to the beginnings of the United States make it a musical for the underdogs, for those who feel left out of the system, and for those who are tired of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that intellectual bell hooks describes (here’s a playlist with bell hooks’ talk, “Cultural Criticism and Transformation”). It takes a story of white men fighting for freedom and reflects on its parallel of BIPOC and immigrants’ own fight for equality in modern times, showing that while Alexander Hamilton’s plight may seem far removed and irrelevant, the same pattern of marginalization and oppression has existed for centuries and should be addressed.

  • Question of

    Do you like Hamilton?

    • Yes, it’s a work of art!
    • No
  • Question of

    Do you think Lin-Manuel did a good job exploring transracial and cultural issues in the musical?

    • Yes
    • No

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Written by Danny

Student at Georgetown University. Lover of Film and TV. Self-taught clown.

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