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The rise, fall, and ambiguous resurgence of Lin-Manuel Miranda

Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson discusses the recent criticism of Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Even if you’ve never heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda, you’ve likely heard of at least one of his works: In the Heights, Bring it On: The Musical, Hamilton, or the soundtracks to Moana and Encanto.

Miranda is undoubtedly a talented creative force, juggling the roles of actor, singer, songwriter, and playwright all at once for certain productions. He was the recipient of several major awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, two Laurence Olivier Awards, three Tony Awards, three Grammy Awards, and two Primetime Emmy Awards, just to name a few.

Until somewhat recently—Miranda’s name seemed to carry a magnetic aura. He was even credited with reviving the interest of the historical Alexander Hamilton himself, saving the US founding father from being removed from the $10 bill. The musical quickly became a pop culture phenomenon that was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards thanks to its energetic spirit and catchy music. One of the other reasons it became so popular was because it had a diverse cast that, in Miranda’s words, “looks like America now,” and allowed the audience to get drawn into the story and “leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the Founding Fathers at the door.”

In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the American public began to become more critical of racial issues and representation in the media. Books by Black authors or ones about racial injustice soon became bestsellers and appeared on “must-read” lists.  

Hamilton, using a mostly POC cast (with the exception of King George III)soon received some very valid criticism. Fans of Miranda questioned why a Black, Jewish man (Daveed Diggs) was playing Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong slave owner. Similar questions can be asked about the other BIPOC cast members playing—and aggrandizing—morally reprehensible, problematic historical figures who upheld systemic racism in the United States. Miranda probably had good intentions; to create a colour-conscious cast and try to diversify Broadway by employing some of the best, upcoming BIPOC actors in theatre. However, his intentions fall short because it honestly glosses over the fact many of these characters bursting into rap and song were actually slave-owners. 

Jefferson is the only character that is really criticized for owning slaves. This happens in the second song of Act II, in “Cabinet Battle #1.” The “battle” begins when George Washington explains the following issue before the cabinet: Hamilton proposed to establish a national bank. Jefferson is not a fan of this idea, to say the least, and rails off about how it’s a bad idea. Hamilton responds, in rap battle fashion, “A civics lesson from a slaver… / Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor / “We plant seeds in the South. We create.”…/ We know who’s really doing the planting.” 

Just by reading these lyrics, it does feel like a real criticism of Jefferson, but the music and performance of the actors say otherwise. As Hamilton raps them out, the other members of the cabinet respond by putting their hands over their mouths, letting out audible gasps. Hamilton’s deride ends with him telling Jefferson to “bend over” so he can show him “where his shoe fits,” then he does a little bunny hop dance. It feels more like Jefferson has been humiliated rather than criticized. Ultimately, the song is tone-deaf. 

In one of the last songs of the first act, “Yorktown,” Washington has just promoted Hamilton to a command position in the Continental Army. Hamilton meets with Lafayette, and they discuss the ongoing Battle of Yorktown, which took place in 1781. As the battle begins, Hamilton muses on the locations of his friends. He notes that John Laurens is in South Carolina, leading a company of Black troops to battle. Hamilton and Laurens suddenly interject, “We’ll never be free until we end slavery!” This along with the other reoccurring standalone quotes throughout the musical, like “immigrants, we get the job done,” fulfills a romanticized version of America—an America that overcomes systemic prejudice and promises the American Dream to all.  

Most of the historical figures in the musical owned slaves, even Hamilton himself. Near the beginning of the musical Hamilton attends the Winter Ball, where he meets the Schuyler sisters–Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy. Hamilton almost immediately falls in love with Eliza and somehow, with his miraculous charisma, Hamilton manages to marry her. Hamilton is considered “out of Eliza’s league” because she comes from an incredibly wealthy family. How did her family get so wealthy? Well, her father, Philip Schuyler, owned a large estate in Saratoga, New York, which was comprised of tens of thousands of acres. As his incredible wealth and property suggest, he did indeed own many slaves.

Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed wrote that Hamilton was neither an abolitionist nor was he pro-immigration. She praised the diversity of the cast, but at the same time felt Miranda may have unintentionally “submerged” a serious discussion on slavery by doing so. She considers herself a fan of the show but criticized its glimmering portrayals of the Founding Fathers.

The criticism of Hamilton was far-reaching. In 2019, American writer Ishmael Reed released a play that critiqued Hamilton through a fictionalized version of Miranda. In a Christmas Carol fashion, the ghosts of marginalized people and historical figures visit Miranda to communicate the whitewashing of Hamilton. At the end of the play, Miranda is commissioned to write a play about Christopher Columbus, which he ultimately refuses to write. Reed is the recipient of the 1998 MacArthur Fellowship – often called the “genius grant” – as well as the 1975 Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, a two-time National Book Award nominee, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. His works are best known for challenging literary tradition and American political culture.

Hamilton isn’t the only one of Miranda’s works to fall short. In the summer of 2021, he produced a film adaption of his musical In the Heights. For context, In the Heights is about the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City. A sympathetic bodega owner named Usnavi saves up to live a better life, while the supporting cast members try to nurture their own dreams. 

The musical and its subsequent film adaption tackle tough topics such as American immigration policy, the rights of undocumented immigrants, microaggressions, and the gentrification of Manhattan. While the film had a slight underperformance at the box office, it holds a generally high rating from critics. 

However, the film did receive some backlash, especially from the Afro-Latino community due to its lack of dark-skinned characters. Concepción de León, a travel writer for the New York Times, said in an interview that “at least 90 percent of Dominicans are of African descent, according to a recent population survey.” She felt that Miranda and the directors of the film should have hired more Black Latino actors to “reflect the truth of the neighborhood.”

For a movie that tries to portray this demographic, an unknowing audience member may leave the theatre thinking that the community is mostly light-skinned, even though that is not the case. The New York Times wrote that the neighbourhood is “predominantly Afro-Dominican.”

Miranda did respond to this backlash, recognizing he made a mistake. He tweeted, shortly after the film’s release, that he could “hear the hurt and frustration over colorism…In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short.” He apologized and promised to improve on this in his future projects.

Some responses accepted his apology, arguing that it was impossible to represent a whole group in a film in the first place. However, many responses to Miranda’s apology tweet were still critical, for good reason. One Twitter user commented in response: “I hope you are moving beyond listening into some soul searching.  You have literally gone to the bank profiting from Black hip-hop culture, portraying a white man who claimed abolition but bought and sold enslaved Africans on the side. This was not an accident or unfortunate omission.”

As a result of these criticisms, many have concluded the film was a product of colourism, which de León noted was a major issue within the Latino community. As a Black Latina herself, she recalled that her complexion has always been a topic of conversation, even within her own family. She concluded that it was perfectly still acceptable to enjoy the film, despite these issues, but the audience should be aware that many of the film’s cultural elements could not be “divorced” from Black Latinos.

Near the end of 2021, Disney released a 3D animated musical film called Encanto. The story is about the Madrigal family, led by a matriarch whose immediate relatives receive magical gifts and powers from “the miracle” that enable them to provide for their rural Colombian community. Mirabel Madrigal, the protagonist, is the only child who does not receive a gift. This was foretold by Bruno, the “black sheep” of the family who is practically outcasted as a result of his powers of precognition. 

The soundtrack, composed by Miranda, has received wide acclaim, to the point where it’s almost inescapable. TikTok trends have helped the soundtrack get to this place, as the social media platform is overrun by trends accompanying the music and characters. The most popular track, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” has set a record for becoming Billboard’s highest-charting Disney song in 26 years, surpassing Frozen’s “Let It Go,” and currently tying with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King, and Vanessa Williams’ “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas

The film has been praised for the way it handled toxic family relationships, the inclusion of a multi-generational household, and its diverse cast of characters. As far as I know, Miranda’s only contribution to the musical was its soundtrack, and he did not have any influence on its characters or plot. Unlike Miranda’s previous works, though, Encanto features Latino characters of all different skin colours.

Miranda did note in an interview with Moviefone TV that he was involved in the movie from its conception, and that allowed him to “contribute more through the musical storytelling.” Even though Miranda probably did not have a direct influence on the choices that made the animated movie as diverse as it was, his songs did help communicate the theme of generational trauma.

The release of Encanto also seems to have slowed down the previous criticisms of Miranda’s other works. Miranda typically plays the leading roles in his plays, as he played Usnavi in stage version of In the Heights and Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton. Some see this as a form of conceit. This is the case especially in Hamilton, where every female character is attracted by Hamilton. I would argue the case is a little less weird in In the Heights, but it is important to note that Usnavi is greatly admired and loved by everyone in the Washington Heights community. 

To the surprise of many, Miranda does not play a role in Encanto. It has kind of become a bona fide meme that Miranda secretly wanted to cast himself as Bruno because he’s the only older male character who raps in the film. People have humourously imagined Miranda being held back by Disney members while the cast of Encanto records their songs. One TikTok user has even recorded several covers of Encanto songs, playing every character in his uncannily accurate Miranda impression.

The case of Lin-Manuel Miranda is a strange one. He seems to have fulfilled one of the themes in Hamilton, which is that of legacy. What exactly is Miranda’s legacy now?

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

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