Not long after we went into quarantine — all of us just beginning to understand the magnitude of it, feeling so much fear and uncertainty — Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bob Iger announced that a filmed version of “Hamilton” would be released earlier than scheduled. It would stream to homes on the Fourth of July weekend.
It’s a hell of a gift for our nation’s birthday.
As our country convulses, Miranda’s unlikely blockbuster, now 5 years old, has become something of a Rorschach test. How do you see America?
Are we a 400-year-old blood-drenched relic founded on slavery, as the discredited New York Times 1619 Project has it, the American Revolution fought for the rights of slaveholders? Are we today a malignant cancer, one metastasized over centuries and now terminal?
Is America so hopelessly, systemically racist — and in some woke quarters, if you’re white, you’re a racist, no matter how well you know yourself, just a heads-up — that we should tear it all down, statues only the beginning?
Or do you see the America that Miranda sees? The one that’s an idea as much as a nation, our Founding Fathers flawed products of their time, many unable to grasp the contradictions in fighting for freedom while slaveholders themselves, struggling to codify a republic they believed could be exceptional?
“And so the American experiment begins,” goes the lyric in “Yorktown,” the show’s electrifying set piece depicting the Revolution’s most consequential battle and its aftermath.
The American experiment: Has there ever been a more eloquent, perfect description of our imperfection?
“Hamilton” itself is an experiment, a patriotic hip-hop musical with a multiracial cast portraying George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and with Miranda — himself of Puerto Rican descent — playing Alexander Hamilton. Race here is both irrelevant and a way to remind us that all races suffered in, and contributed to, our founding.
While “Hamilton” may not be historically accurate — Miranda glosses over his hero’s buying and selling of slaves for his in-laws, as well as Jefferson’s and Washington’s slaveholding — it doesn’t have to be. It’s not a documentary. It’s a work of art speaking to our better angels.
There’s a reason Miranda won the Pulitzer, a Kennedy Center Honor, a MacArthur Genius Grant and an armload of Tonys and Grammys for “Hamilton.”
There’s also a reason that its diehard fans include Barack Obama and Jay-Z, and that Disney paid $75 million for the worldwide rights.
On our best days, this is the America we believe in, a melting pot, in which humanitarian ideals unite us all. On our worst days, this is the America for which we continue to fight.
Two other key lines from “Yorktown” acknowledge just how much our complicated history lives with us still:
“We’ll never be free until we end slavery.”
“Immigrants — we get the job done!”
Miranda is reflecting truths we well know. Not everyone in America is equal yet. Not all immigrants feel welcome — or are welcome. We will never be free until we eradicate the systemic legacies of slavery. That fight is not yet over.
But with “Hamilton,” Miranda reminds us that the good fight is always worth waging, no matter the cost. On this most unusual Fourth, it feels only right to celebrate his musical — and, by extension, the best of America.
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