Why are 12-year-olds running around singing about bastards and whores? And grown people paying up to $2k for tickets to see men in wigs sing and dance? Why is Abraham Lincoln no longer the most popular US president?
Is this mid-quarantine delirium?
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about the “forgotten” founding father and first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States dazzled Broadway audiences in 2015.
Hamilton: An American Musical swept the 2016 Emmy Awards and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Now folks young and old are obsessed with it. Whether it’s the clever rhymes, the star-studded cast, or the inspirational immigrant narrative, Hamilton has become a pop culture phenomenon. During an eight-performance run in 2016, the show grossed over $3.3 million, making it the first Broadway show ever to bring in more than $3 million for eight shows. It has spawned a Triple Platinum Broadway cast album, which won a Grammy award and sold millions of dollars worth of merchandise. Its creator, Miranda, is now worth somewhere between $40 and $80 million.
A production of Hamilton ran for two weeks in Puerto Rico in January 2019, to help raise money after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria. Despite Miranda’s family’s ties to the island, the event caused controversy and tensions among student protestors and the PR government. Miranda eventually won over many of his critics when he pulled a Puerto Rican flag out of his coat during the curtain call. The run raised over $14 million to support artists in Puerto Rico.
Now, the original Broadway production has been made into a movie, which streamed on Disney+. Disney reportedly paid $75 million for the movie rights.
For those of you who have self-quarantined under a rock, Disney+ is the streaming service crafted by the media behemoth to compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. It was launched on 12 November of last year in the US, Canada, and the Netherlands. Disney+ costs subscribers $7 a month. Its service expanded across the globe throughout the spring and by May 2020 it had 54.5 million subscribers. Disney+ can now be bundled with Hulu and the ESPN streaming service, ESPN+ for $12.99 a month in the US. Disney+ is home to such popular franchises as Star Wars, The Simpsons, Marvel, Pixar, and National Geographic.
Why did Miranda and company partner with Disney+, you might ask? Well, it’s a savvy business decision for both parties.
Disney+ gets to showcase a multicultural cast of actors embracing the “American Dream”, at a time when many Americans have become disillusioned with this ideal. For Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), the “American Dream”, has always been more like a nightmare. In fact, without much digging we find that Disney’s catalogue is a primer on white supremacy:
I recall loving Fantasia (1940), especially the scene of Mickey endlessly filling water buckets in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” But, in another segment, a small brown-skinned centaur is subservient to and waits on a gaggle of tall, blonde centaurs. I don’t remember this bit, but it is shocking in its racist overtones.
Recently people have been talking about Dumbo (1941) and a crow character called, wait for it: Jim Crow, who speaks in a stereotypically Southern Black jive accent. Also, Black circus roustabouts sing a song whose lyrics include the following: “We slave until we’re almost dead / We’re happy-hearted roustabout” and “Keep on working / Stop that shirking / Pull that rope, you hairy ape”. Whoa!
Even Disney realized the now-infamous, Song of the South (1946) is racist, and attempted to wipe it from the face of popular culture. Incidentally, Tom Hanks’s character in the 1984 film, Splash! (made by Disney subsidiary, Touchstone Pictures), riffs on the song, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”. This song also inspired the Splash Mountain ride at the Walt Disney theme parks. Recently, folks have called for the ride to be re-themed.
Peter Pan (1953), much-beloved by children everywhere, contains offensive depictions of Indigenous peoples and a song titled, “What Makes the Red Man Red”. The “Indians” speak in strings of senseless syllables while Peter, Wendy, and her brothers don headdresses and dance around making “war whoops”. When I teach this film, my college students are flabbergasted – having no memory of its blatant racism.
In The Jungle Book (1967), the king of the apes, Louie, is depicted as being big, fat, lazy, and not all that sharp.
Lest you are inclined to dismiss these early Disney gems as the product of their times, witness the modern Disney “classics”, which also traffic in racist stereotypes and demeaning depictions of BIPOC.
The Little Mermaid‘s (1989) Sebastian’s Jamaican accent codes him as musical, fun-loving and carefree. Under the sea, the blackfish and the fish playing jazz are drawn with exaggerated lips.
In a widely-known act of contrition, Disney changed the opening lines of “Arabian Nights” from Aladdin (1992). Originally, it included the lines: “Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”. Other aspects of the film are still racist.
Although young girls adore the nature-loving Indian princess in Pocahontas (1995), the story and songs are problematic. “Savages” portrays Native Americans as less than human, and the European conquest and genocide are thoroughly white-washed.
In 2011, critics and fans rejoiced at the premiere of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which features a black protagonist who drives the plot with her ambitious actions. However, she has a voodoo priest for a confidante and her boyfriend, Naveen, is ethnically ambiguous.
Indeed, Disney has a problematic history. When Moana came to the screen in 2016, many held out hope that Disney was finally going to get its depictions of BIPOC right. While some viewers applauded the portrayal of the main character, they heaped criticism on the demi-God, Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). In the film, Maui is drawn as a large, tattooed man with a large ego to match. Most upsetting was Maui’s Halloween costume – a brown skinsuit covered with ink that came with a grass skirt and shark tooth necklace. Hawaiian actor Auli’i Cravalho voices Moana and the film engaged a team of Pacific Islander consultants, yet it still evidenced Disney’s pursuit of profit over cultural respect.
Steeped in a history of white supremacist messages, Disney, one of the most powerful media companies on the planet, is out of touch with the times. Or perhaps I should say, Disney offers a sadly accurate reflection of the current state of American culture. As we witness blatant acts of police brutality and millions of people braving exposure to a deadly virus to demonstrate against racist authoritarianism, Disney needs to get woke.
Enter Lin-Manual Miranda and Hamilton‘s post-racial casting; “The story of America then, told by America now” as he describes it. Miranda plays the title role, with Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Reneé Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, and Jonathan Groff as King George. With its cast of all shades, the movie is just what America needs to feel good about itself again, to reassure fragile white folks that race is not such a big issue, really. After all, Black and Asian and White actors are all performing on stage together, in parts that defy racial typecasting. And don’t forget, America had a Black president.
Police brutality is on the rise: at this writing police have killed 598 people in 2020 in the United States. Black people comprise 28% of those killed by police since 2013 despite being only 13% of the population. Neo-Nazi groups are on the rise, up by 22% according to one report, emboldened by the openly racist rhetoric of President Trump.
Hamilton will be seen by more than 50 million subscribers of Disney+ and probably more, who will sign up just to watch the movie. Originally planned for release in mid-October, Disney moved up the Hamilton premiere to 3 July in a gesture of patriotic celebration.
Hamilton is the perfect Disney vehicle for quarantine. Viewers get entertained, they feel part of a global phenomenon, and they learn something in the process. But Hamilton is little more than the new Frozen – a crass commercial vehicle of widespread appeal that appeases the public’s demand for pablum disguised as social commentary. Just as Frozen appeared to deliver a message of 21st century girl power, Hamilton hypnotizes audiences with its rhyming hymn to American exceptionalism.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have seen neither Hamilton, nor Frozen. I am suspicious of cultural artifacts that garner so much popularity. I find Frozen‘s faux-feminist message and multi-billion-dollar merchandising off-putting in the extreme. Americans should learn their history, and there’s nothing wrong with delivering lessons via entertainment, but Miranda’s self-aggrandizing attitude and showmanship are far more reminiscent of P.T. Barnum than a PBS documentary.
Hamilton and Disney+ are a match made in heaven: both worship at the altar of capitalism, preaching the gospel of infotainment and praising American values that are belied by current events. But we can no longer sit by idly, glued to our screens, mesmerized by the distractions proffered by white supremacist media moguls. These latter-day robber barons are stealing our souls as they pilfer our wallets, blinding us to the shameful acts of authority figures everywhere and lulling us into a false sense of self-satisfaction.
So, turn off your screens, put down your devices and read, reflect, listen to those who America has wronged, instead of watching a fictionalized version of an historical person of note sing and dance on a stage. Real-life Alexander Hamiltons, and George Floyds, and Breeona Taylors are dying, and their families are calling for justice. We know this story all too well.