What the Hamilton backlash tells us about pop culture, partisanship and antiracism

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Is Hamilton cancelled? In the six days since Disney+ released the filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s biographical musical, news outlets have been flooded with coverage of that question. “Hamilton the Musical is taking over the Internet – including its controversies”, runs a typical headline. “Lin-Manuel Miranda responds to Hamilton criticism” is another. The supposed debate is between antiracist commentators and die-hard fans of the show: the former arguing that Miranda has unduly glorified the founding fathers, many of whom (including Alexander Hamilton, albeit indirectly) were profiting from the slave trade even as they proclaimed man’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But even this analysis is inaccurate. Who is calling for “cancellation”, and which media are amplifying such calls, are questions that bear careful scrutiny.

Most of the tweets with the hashtag #cancelhamilton are using it in support of the musical. One such response: “#cancelhamilton is dumb. Every persons [sic] done bad things so if you want to go by that I guess you can’t do any films/shows that are history related.” A Vanity Fair article notes that as of 8th July, a petition calling for Disney+ to stop making money from the film has garnered only 400 signatures. The group whose tweets tend in favour of #cancelhamilton is made up of two subsets: people who actually want Hamilton cancelled, and right-wing journalists trying to stir up controversy among fans of the show. It is no coincidence – and no surprise – that two of the most vocal outlets in the debate are the Daily Mail and the New York Post, (broadly) right-wing tabloids.

The Post’s Karol Markowicz ran a column on 2nd July entitled “The ‘cancel’ crowd should be gunning for Hamilton”. “Hamilton is a love letter to America and a profound appreciation of its founding. Is that even allowed anymore?” she asks, wide eyes barely concealing her glee at the thought that “liberals” might be lining up to take down one of their own. Tweeters have followed Markowicz’s heavy-handed lead. “Why would you even think about promoting a film in which we see actors portraying characters that are not the same race as they are?! #CancelHamilton,” joked one in response to a Disney+ trailer.

Re-examining Hamilton’s portrayal of the founding fathers in light of the inexorable movement of Black Lives Matter into the mainstream is necessary. (Even the “re-” is misleading: Hamilton has always had political critics. Ishmael Reed, the scholar, writer and radical, wrote a play entitled The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda in which Miranda is confronted with a parade of ghosts taking issue with his one-sided sources.) Some of Hamilton’s drooling over the founding fathers seems, if not unbelievable now, at least thoroughly out of vogue. “We roll like Moses, claiming our promised land” comes across as a pretty uncritical regurgitation of Manifest Destiny.

But overemphasising the size of the “Cancel Hamilton” movement neither assists with that reexamination nor does justice to what the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting for. Like the TV networks hastily removing sitcom episodes featuring blackface, the storm of debate around “cancellation” acts as white noise, distracting from the often life-threatening oppression suffered by black people across the world. That noise is initiated as much by anti-BLM groups as by the “radical liberals” whose pettiness they claim to despise.

The most interesting thing about the idea of “cancelling” Hamilton is that cancellation as a phenomenon is written into the musical itself – albeit not in so many words. Hamilton sustained severe public censure, and in the musical’s telling of it, lost his shot at the US presidency, over shocking revelations about his private life. Songs repeatedly ask the question: “Who tells your story?” The question of who is on the right side of history is deeply ingrained into Hamilton. It’s ironic that that question can now be directed at the musical itself as well as its characters.

And for something as near-universally acclaimed as Hamilton was on first release, it is hard for public opinion to go anywhere but downwards. Whether that will be on civil rights grounds or simply on its artistic strengths remains to be seen. It seems unlikely that the work Michelle Obama called the best art she had “ever seen in her life” could ever have stood up to a second viewing, even without any overt controversy. Like La La Land and Avatar before it, Hamilton will undoubtedly suffer – and probably weather – its critical backlash. “History has its eyes on you,” Washington sings to Hamilton. He might as well be talking directly to Miranda.


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