Last weekend was the Fourth of July, a cause for socially distanced picnics and (even more) fireworks (than usual). But when the collective “we” looks back on July 4, 2020, in a few years, many Americans might remember it as the weekend the filmed version of Hamilton arrived on Disney+ in the middle of a pandemic.
Hamilton, a musical that debuted at the Public Theater in New York in 2015, shouldn’t be such a topic of conversation five years later. It was a phenomenon when it premiered, but in the intervening years it has been analyzed and think-pieced ad infinitum. There really shouldn’t be more to say. Yet, in the era of streaming, it’s become as relevant as ever. The biggest hurdle the musical faced throughout its wildly successful run at the Public, on Broadway, and beyond was access; getting tickets felt impossible. Scores of people who had all but memorized the soundtrack had never seen the show performed. But last Friday, thanks to Disney+, anyone with a subscription could see it in its entirety—right down to Jonathan Groff’s King George spit.
It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The most obvious reason for this is that movie theaters are still largely closed due to Covid-19 (though some are suing for the ability to reopen), and folks need new things to watch—and tweet about. But it’s also coming amidst the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd, a movement that has reinvigorated discussion of the legacies of many of Hamilton’s main characters. Last Friday, just as the musical was landing on Disney’s streaming service, President Trump was in South Dakota giving a speech in front of Mount Rushmore, praising the faces on it, including Hamilton stars—and slave owners—Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. It was a confluence of events that led to a whole new conversation about the musical, one that show creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, engaged in on Twitter (below) and in interviews (way below).
It also called into question the legacy of Alexander Hamilton himself, and the liberties Miranda took with history. Was A. Ham a slaveholder? An abolitionist? Both? (Yes. Kind of. Probably?) Historians weighed in on Twitter to try to separate fact from fiction, and filmmakers like Ava DuVernay chimed in to set the record straight, adding “that’s why I don’t look to art for my history. I study history.”
The reexamination of Hamilton is instructive of two things: One, that art can, and should, always be subject to re-examination and criticism. Two, that art will find new meaning with every fresh set of eyes and/or ears that consume it. During a recent Instagram Live session with Vulture, Okieriete Onaodowan and Daveed Diggs, who played Hamilton’s James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, were asked about the recent discourse over whether the musical does an adequate job of addressing slavery. In the talk, both admit the show has blind spots when it comes to slavery and its main characters’ participation, or complicity, in it. They also acknowledge, in some ways, that it’s a flawed piece about flawed people, something podcast host Tracy Clayton acknowledged on the Twitter thread Miranda replied to claiming the criticisms of his work were valid.