I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way we learn and understand history – in part because of my own love for the Broadway hit musical Hamilton. That musical has taken the life of the first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, turned it into a popular hip hop musical, and made learning about the founding fathers of the United States a little less boring. (Unless you’re a part of the founding fathers fandom, which is in fact an actual thing on the internet and includes romantic shipping of historical figures.) But at the same time, the show hasn’t told the full story and has spun some of the facts into a more dramatic retelling.
Hamilton has skyrocketed into mainstream popularity, received awards and praise, and has gained a sizeable and dedicated following. People show up in droves to watch the live #Ham4Ham mini shows during the ticket lottery in New York City and a book was created to show behind the scenes of both the show and creation. But not everyone has been praising the production and that’s a good thing.
Lyra Monterio spoke with Slate about her own criticisms of the show a few weeks ago and she’s not the only critic. Nancy Isenberg wrote about how the musical mischaracterized Aaron Burr among other things; Jennifer Schuessler wrote about how historians have been responding to the show; Ishmael Reed wrote a couple pieces on how slavery played a role in Hamilton’s own life and how the show seems to over play the founding father’s abolitionist stances. On the complete and total flip side, Aja Romano argues that Hamilton is a fanfic, that:
In essence, Hamilton is a postmodern metatextual piece of fanfic, functioning in precisely the way that most fanfics do: It reclaims the canon for the fan.
With all of that, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which popular culture and entertainment tells history. Historical fiction and productions in all the different forms can provide entertainment and a possible starting point into learning more about our history; but it should not be considered a great place to fully comprehensive understanding of all the nuances of the past. Films like Stonewall (2015) and The Imitation Game (2014) bring up parts and people of history that might not otherwise be talked about in the same way but they are in no way an accurate representation of what actually happened.
I do think that productions like Hamilton can be important in other ways, especially in the context of the musical having a multiracial cast in yet another field unfortunately dominated by white people (although it’s not the only Broadway show with a mostly people of color cast) and has helped one teacher with teaching about immigration and xenophobia. But it is vital that we recognize the ways in which entertainment bends history to tell a better story. These movies and plays and books and so much more should be a way to start learning about history – not just as the only way to learn.
Hollywood as an industry tells stories in ways that will fill up theaters, making it not the most reliable source of getting history right. But should the industry be responsible for making more of an effort to tell history right? Are producers and writers and others in the industry required to tell a more truthful version of history? When I think about all of this, a quote from James Baldwin comes to mind:
People who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world. This is the place in which it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.
– James Baldwin, “the white man’s guilt” Ebony August 1965
I think that in cases like Stonewall (2015) and in some part, The Imitation Game (2014), there’s a part of history that’s retold to fit an easier and more comfortable narrative that ultimately erases marginalized people from their own history. By making a white cis gay man the center of the Stonewall Riots, Stonewall is made more relatable to the mainstream gay culture (which has become very white and cis oriented) but at the cost of erasing the people who have been on the streets fighting since day one. But with Hamilton, I do have to agree with Romano – the musical seems less like historical telling but instead a fanfic (of sorts) meant for enjoying.