Home Film The “Hamilfilm” – Haunted by the Very Legacy It Seeks to Illuminate

The “Hamilfilm” – Haunted by the Very Legacy It Seeks to Illuminate

by Beatrine Shahzad

In 2015, Hamilton sparked a craze that had never been seen before on Broadway. Energetic and revolutionary, the musical gained traction as people lined up to see it in droves and paid out the wazoo to do so. References to Hamilton and the scarcity of its tickets found their way into pop culture while the show went on a winning streak, racking up Tonys and other awards for its immensely talented cast and crew. The text and music are clever and fresh, the cast is near perfection, and the aspects in design are simple yet exciting. The story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as ambitious adversaries, one loud and passionate the other quiet and calculating, is executed with an incredible thematic precision. While the story centers on Alexander Hamilton as a person, it’s just as much about the relationship he had with his wife and other founding fathers. The musical centers around the concept of their legacy and the biased, ever-shifting eyes of history. 

Leslie Odom Jr. and Lin-Manuel Miranada in ‘Hamilton’ courtesy of Disney Plus

It is exceedingly difficult to capture the energy of a musical through a proshoot and while the “Hamilfilm” available through Disney Plus is better than most, it is still largely constrained in framing the motion the human eye tracks in real life. It falls into the trap of frequent cuts in already active scenes. While not as bad as some other professional recordings, it still deters from the overall experience. The cinematography could have been more innovative and transformed the recording into something tangible.

The cast is incredible. Phillipa Soo, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Christopher Jackson, and Leslie Odom Jr. are powerhouses. Lin-Manuel Miranda, unfortunately, does not compare next to them and his performance as Alexander Hamilton is lacking. The songs are so layered with meaning, strife, and exuberance, it’s a shame that Miranda detracts from their potential emotional and energetic impact. His writing, though, is good. It’s a heartfelt story brimming with unparalleled passion. The last song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, evokes tears regardless of whether it’s the first or hundredth time listening. Hamilton is an experience that reaches its fullest potential on a stage, with a cinematic experience as the next best option. While many of the appeals of live theater cannot be condensed into a cinematic viewing, the ability to watch the show with an audience and the sound quality of a movie theater enhance the experience greatly. It’s a shame the musical had to be diluted to streaming before it had the chance on the big screen, but fans deserve the increased accessibility.

In the musical, there’s a focus on the founding father’s legacy – how history will frame their accomplishments and failures, who and how their story is shared. Not only does the existence of Hamilton as a musical connect to the text as a medium to tell Hamilton’s story, but the proshoot itself is an extension of this thematic element. Now that a professional recording of Hamilton has been made available to the masses on Disney Plus, what is Alexander Hamilton’s legacy and how does the “Hamilfilm” fit into it?

The musical was conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda after reading Ron Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton. It was meant to humanize the founding fathers rather than glorify them. All the roles, except for King George the Third and ensemble members, are required to be people of color. It is the America of today telling the story of the America of yesterday. It’s both symbolic in the narrative as much as a statement, a reclamation of power from the historical figures that didn’t have them in mind.

Though, in practice, looking at Hamilton’s real life impact and the trajectory of American politics, it seems the implication of this concept was never fully considered. When online fandom got a hold of the musical, the fact that the characters were very real people didn’t stop them from writing fan fiction and treating them like the shy underdogs they were depicted as. For such a seemingly radical and progressive concept, people became so comfortable with the idea of Hamilton that even conservative politicians, who share racist rhetoric and support policies that disproportionately hurt people of color, saw it on Broadway.

Anthony Ramos, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Digs, and Okieriete Onaodowan in ‘Hamilton’ courtesy of Disney Plus

Hamilton depicts history the same way an average high school history textbook does except with more feelings and warped in all the dramatic places. While based in history, the show is ultimately a great work of fan fiction. It carries the same energy you would find in any American history class: “The founding fathers endowed the people with unalienable rights. It’s unfortunate that they still allowed slavery to be practiced and didn’t give any rights in practice to anyone who wasn’t a white man, but people had the freedom to fight for those rights later because of them, so it’s important to focus on what they did right.” This minimizes the horrors of the founding fathers’ legacy, even if the script still alludes to them with small easter eggs for history buffs. Every single person of color on Hamilton‘s stage has faced racism in America and they did so because the founding fathers built the country for white men. Systemic racism exists because of the founding fathers. Hamilton and every other character on that stage was complicit in it. That is their legacy.

Trying to bridge the struggles of the America of today and the America of then is a hopeful sentiment, but it is also dangerous. Distancing how the colonial era contributed to the current systems of oppression is dangerous. It leads to the cognitive dissonance of America, eager to glorify its founding on the basis of freedom and equality while simultaneously smothering the fact that freedom and equality was not and still is not endowed to all. Moreso, as a professional recording now accessible to all, the “Hamifilm” will be used as an educational tool, furthering this problematic narrative and spreading it wide. Hamilton is an extremely enjoyable show, but sharing the professional recording especially in an educational setting without a larger conversation surrounding it can be harmful. The musical acts as a double-edged sword. It finally gives people of color a spotlight to share their talents in an industry filled with obstacles for them, but it does not give them a voice since they’re used mouthpieces for the men who set up the obstacles in the first place.

Jonathan Groff as King George the Third in ‘Hamilton’ courtesy of Disney Plus

If Hamilton was not about real people and real events, and slavery did not exist, it would be a masterpiece. The musical itself is nearly flawless if not for its real-world implications. The “Hamilfilm” would be a pure win for greater musical theater accessibility. So, the Hamilton proshoot review if it was purely fictional is a strong 4/5.

Unfortunately, this musical does not exist as a political vacuum and it acknowledges that fact in its discussion of how history is written. Hamilton is haunted by the very legacy it seeks to uphold. There is no contesting that. It’s easy to see why people love this musical, but it’s also clear why it is problematic and should not be defended. There are better ways to uplift people of color and learn about history. Maybe none as entertaining as memorizing Act 2 of the musical to better remember the differences between anti-federalists and federalists for your history exam, but infinitely more useful in synthesizing the true legacy of Alexander Hamilton to today’s world.

You can stream Hamilton only on Disney Plus.

Follow writer Beatrine Shahzad on Twitter: @beyabean

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