Hamilton, the hip-hop musical starring the Founding Fathers and the best thing on planet Earth right now, recently found itself in a spot of controversy when some took umbrage with a casting call that said the show was “seeking non-white men and women” for its lead cast. Some made a stink about the listing, labeling it with made-up phrases like “reverse racism” and other nonsense. Though the wording of the listing was changed to state that the characters (and not the sought after actors) would be non-white, a spokesperson for the show reaffirmed the cast and crew’s philosophy of only casting people of color for its revolutionary leads.
Honestly, what I found most astonishing about the whole incident was that it was the first time I’d seen any amount of negativity surrounding the show’s racebending of the Founding Fathers. For months, Hamilton has been taking over pop culture and creating legions of nerd acolytes online having dubbed themselves #Hamiltrash, and not a single time had I seen its black, Latin@, and mixed-race cast discussed with anything less than praise. The only other response to the cast that I’d seen that wasn’t unequivocal adulation was simple astounded admiration at the cast having delivered on the show’s lofty promises.
And that really is surprising; that Hamilton has “gotten away” with racebending the most famous and hallowed white men and women in American history, at a time when race is such a contentious issue.
Anyone who follows other nerd pursuits like comic books, superhero movies, and video games should be no stranger to the kind of reaction racebending usually gets online. When Sam Wilson, AKA The Falcon, took over as Captain America from Steve Rogers in the recent Marvel comics; when Michael B. Jordan was cast as the traditionally white Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four; when literally anytime a video game critic asks why there aren’t more people of color in gaming, internet nerds respond with the same anger, vitriol, idiocy, racism, and shortsighted arguments.
Their typical argument says something to the effect that certain characters/stories/time periods/fictions need to be white for the sake of historical accuracy. The story wouldn’t work or make sense unless the characters were white. The other favorite of the racist internet nerd is to say they’d love to see more characters of color, as long as they’re wholly original. The argument goes that people of color should make their own characters instead of meddling with all of the good white ones. Their ultimate concern, so they say, is that insisting on including people of color will somehow hinder the creative process, making all art the same “politically-correct” mass. Setting aside why these arguments are fallacious in their own right, Hamilton single-handedly puts them all to shame. It’s a sterling example of how racebending leads to new ways of exploring characters and history and culture, of finding new depths in material, and of reaching new audiences.
This is inherently a non-white telling of a story that historically features only white people. Drawing primarily on black and Latino culture to tell Hamilton’s story, Hamilton is from top-to-bottom constructed as distinctly non-white. The cast is comprised of people of color, most of the characters speak almost entirely in rap, the music is made up of hip-hop, R&B, and soul.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired to turn Alexander Hamilton’s life into a musical because he saw in it a traditional hip-hop arc: a rags-to-riches story of a combative personality who makes his way to the top on the strength of his verse. Of course, you could cast white people who can rap, but to do so would betray the culture and people that make hip-hop the perfect style in which to tell the story.
And hip-hop is outstandingly suited for telling this story. You could look at the use of hip-hop as utilitarian. The show runs two-and-a-half hours, a lot needs to happen to cover Hamilton’s life, and a sizable portion of that is intricate political maneuverings. According to fivethirtyeight.com, if Hamilton was paced like other Broadway musicals it would take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to get through. Instead, it runs twice as long as most other musicals and features almost four times as many words. No other musical genre could fit that much content into its form.
That’s not to mention Hamilton‘s energy and charisma. The charm that’s drawing audiences to it is directly related to its use of hip-hop to tell a story that may, from the outside, seem ponderous and stuffy. Stylistically, hip-hop’s energy, speed, and passion works in the military and political world that Hamilton is dealing with. I mean, is there any better way to dramatize a Cabinet meeting than staging it as a rap battle?
Then there’s the social and educational benefits of telling the story of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers like this. Like Miranda and the rest of the cast and crew are wont to say, Hamilton is “a story about America then, told by America now.” Not only does the play encourage any young student to engage with American history, but, through its music and its racebent cast, it specifically appeals to young people of color who may otherwise feel disconnected from a story about a bunch of slave-owning white people.
There’s also a sense of redemption that comes with casting these imperfect heroes as people of color. The show makes mention of the ills of slavery and the abolitionist efforts of some of the characters but these are mostly short lines with no bearing on the plot. None of the show’s political issues, like the Revolution or Hamilton’s debt plan, address slavery in any real significant way. In any other show, this would come off as uncomfortable. Trying to tell the story of our country’s birth without paying much attention to the its biggest sin would be a huge misstep for a show with an all-white cast. But here it doesn’t feel that way. In Hamilton, that sin is already relieved by the fact that it was written by a Latino man and acted out by a main cast comprised entirely of people of color. There’s no worry about excluding people of color or ignoring their off-stage subjugation because Hamilton lessens that burden on its characters through racebending.
Among its amazing performances and unbelievable lineup of songs, Hamilton is also the best beat down you could deliver to racist nerds who get upset at the idea of deliberately including somebody who’s not their own skin color.
And so, once again, I thank God for Hamilton.