Communication Analysis for Hamilton

The following is a rhetorical analysis for class that I turned into a Communication Analysis for the 2016-2017 NCFA Speech Season. As this was copied from the original document, there will be some formatting inaccuracies. 

In Hollywood, there is a long lasting trend of whitewashing in movies. Roles that are written and meant to be played by people of color are frequently given to white actors, under the impression that higher revenues are associated with whiter skin. For instance, recently, white actors like Johnny Depp and Rooney Mara were cast in roles portraying Native American characters. On the surface, it may just appear like the studio is choosing big name actors that are more likely to draw crowds. However, at some point it crosses the line and points towards institutionalized racism. This is most clearly seen in casting posts, which will specifically seek white people for auditions, and leave out actors of color, regardless of talent. This not only reinforces the idea of a racist system but also limits opportunities for minorities to break out of these Hollywood- and socially- imposed barriers and make a change to the status quo. However, when a role is advertised for a person of color to audition, it is not uncommon to see public backlash and online claims of “reverse racism.”

History books, for the most part, are written and taught as a reflection of the majority, white men, which do not always adequately represent the values of the whole nation. In high school classes, many times students are taught an extremely skewed version of history that does not seek to capture varying views. It is not until college where only sometimes more classes are offered to give wider perspectives, which could potentially lead a person of color to not feel as represented as other groups, primarily those of European descent. However, “history is happenin’ in Manhattan” (Miranda, 2015). The hit Broadway musical Hamilton, written by Lin Manuel Miranda, details the rise to the top of a historical figure, from “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” to treasury secretary. As opposed to a lot of the media being created today, Hamilton offers a refreshing display of minority talent. Through the integration of hip-hop, a music style whose origins are with people of color, Miranda is able to retell a well-known story. In this way he also integrates people of color in ways they have not been before, in both a historical setting and in pop culture. Hamilton’s impact is still being seen and has truly made a continuing splash on the entertainment industry, which includes: winning a Grammy award, being sold out until January 2017, and being nominated for a record breaking 16 Tony awards.

Considering the context in which it arose, there should be no surprise that behind the success has also come controversy. The show purposely sought out to gather a diverse cast of Latinos, African Americans, and Asian actors to portray the Founding Fathers. This has made it a target for complaints about traditionalism and authenticity because on a poster the main cast does not have white skin, as did the founding fathers. However, the show, while taking certain artistic licenses with the character and out of era musical styles, still serves to represent the time period quite accurately. If the story of Alexander Hamilton happened today, there would definitely not only be rich, white men in the “room where it happens” making all the laws and decisions for us. To be able to adequately comprehend the learning ability that Hamilton has in getting students interested in history, a thorough understanding of how Hip-hop encourages learning. To do so, the model “Critical Race Thoery, Hip Hop, and ‘Huck Finn”: Narrative Inquiry in a High School English Classroom,” by Jennifer Martin will be broken down and applied the show.

“Critical Race theory, Hip Hop, and ‘Huck Finn’: Narrative Inquiry in a High School English Classroom,” by Jennifer Martin can be appropriately applied to the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” due to the importance of the use of race in teaching students not only how to adequately be aware of the social injustice in the world toward minorities, but also to help students get engaged in their learning (Martin, 2014). Martin explains that through the Critical Race Theory, understanding hip-hop and the nuances within it helps students to adequately understand classic literature, such as Huckleberry Finn. This model shows that, in racially diverse, schools, students are able to examine white privilege, of both others and themselves, if applicable. First Martin explains that her model is a model of Critical Race Theory, and clarifies that “Critical race theory is a lens allowing for the interrogation of social, educational, and political issues by prioritizing participant voices” (Martin, 2014). Furthermore, Martin explains that, when viewing an artifact through Critical Race Theory, students gain the ability to challenge traditional ideologies of race. Finally, Martin explains that viewing an artifact through the lens can be disruptive to the deeply ingrained ideologies of some of the students.

Lin Manuel Miranda, author of Hamilton, has also served to challenge people to think about race through a different lens. Primarily by utilizing people of color in traditionally white roles for characters such as Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, Christopher Columbus, Aaron Burr, and John Laurens. As mentioned above, the story is told through the use of hip-hop as the main medium of the show. Through the use of this model, it is clear to see that the way students are learning by using hip-hop and Critical Race Theory, the quality of education is greatly growing. For instance, to ensure that students got the opportunity to view this show, a grant was donated to provide New York City students with $10 tickets to see the show. In fact, over 75,000 students from New York are participating in this program.

The first pillar of the model is that of prioritizing participant voices. This means much more than simply making sure that every voice is heard. This also means to prioritize the voices of those who are suppressed. Hamilton is absolutely a part of this. Through the use of actors of color, namely Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, and Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, Miranda gives these traditionally white characters a whole new voice by changing the way that these characters would communicate with each other, and a voice that resonates with students. Aaron Burr, the senator from New York who ultimately shoots and kills Alexander Hamilton, has some of the best songs in the musical, which Mr. Miranda explained was the main intention in writing the Aaron Burr character.

To further elaborate, in the cast, there is only one role for a white actor, King George. It appears that King George is purposely put in this role as a dichotomy to the other characters. Thematically he may be Great Britain asserting control over the colonies but on a deeper level he seems to represent the oppressive hands of the white majority trying to hold down minorities. Even his songs further highlight the difference between him and the rest of the more diverse cast. For instance, his songs, “You’ll Be Back,” “What Comes Next,” and “I Know Him,” are all songs that are traditionally considered to be show times. This represents an evolution within Broadway with how hip-hop is changing perceptions of what is appropriate for musicals; essentially, not only is America revolting in   story but the play itself is revolting against what is traditional acceptable on Broadway. With the rest of the characters all performing raps, including two rap battles, it is clear from the show’s success that many of traditional Broadways barriers may be being broken. Arguably, the show would not have had the same level of success with an all-white cast because it would lose many of the undertones that make it so impactful. Hollywood would try to argue differently, as a reflection of the normal casting values that seem to exist, however, Hamilton is proof that opportunities for success rely far more on talent than skin color. In addition to that, Hamilton serves to provide a voice in history to underprivileged and underrepresented ethnicities through the incorporation of hip-hop and race in the show.

Martin’s second pillar is, when viewing an artifact through Critical Race Theory, students gain the ability to challenge traditional ideologies of race. As previously stated, by having actors of color play traditionally and historically white characters, it provides students the ability to view history in such a way that they are able to adequately and critically challenge the traditional ideologies of race. Transforming months of negotiation into a club style rap battle really shows students the kind of back and forth that goes into making huge decisions. Hamilton employs this method twice. The first rap battle takes place early in the second act of the show, and it details the fight to establish a national bank and assume the debts of the states from the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson, played by Daveed Diggs comes in after serving as ambassador to France, and fights with Hamilton through the entire show, setting up the confusion to the conclusion of the show, and the historical end to Alexander Hamilton.

The second rap battle is conducted mid-way through the second act of the show, and brings the audience into the fight, arguing whether or not to go to the aid of France in the French Revolution. Again, the arguments were between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. By having these two characters engage in the negotiation and legal process by working out their issues in the form of rap battles, Miranda is able to teach students, who had been taught that hip-hop is unacceptable and inherently bad, that hip-hop can be good, worthwhile, and teach students in a whole different manner than previously utilized. In fact, it legitimizes the genre as an art in ways it has not previously been. For some students, reading out of a book and being tested on the materials is enough. For others, the visualization of the story of the founding of America, as told with actors who, previously, would never be able to perform in a show about the Founding Fathers, give students new tools that will help them to adequately challenge the roles of race and racist ideologies that are passed down to them. By telling the story of the founding of America through a diverse cast, a true reflection of the world in 2016, completely breaks down the walls of traditional racial ideologies. Also, it further pushes students to question motives for racist practices in the first place. For instance, if Hamilton is able to exist in today’s world, with the level of acclaim it has gathered, why isn’t the rest of the media trying to incorporate diversity to this extent?

The final pillar of this model is that viewing an artifact through this lens can be disruptive to the deeply ingrained ideologies of some students. One of the main reasons for the grant allowing New York students to go and see Hamilton, was to show kids how people of color could be successful on Broadway, which is a predominantly white industry. Giving students the ability to see various actors of color play these roles gives them so many more opportunities than a textbook can teach them. Various songs start with emphasizing Hamilton’s disadvantages followed with his success, with “How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” (Alexander Hamilton) and “How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore go on and on grow into more of a phenomenon?” (A Winter’s Ball) and “How does the bastard, orphan, immigrant, decorated war vet unite the colonies through more debt?” (What’d I Miss) (Miranda, 2015) By emphasizing that Alexander Hamilton grew up impoverished and orphaned, yet grew into the first Treasury Secretary of the United States, George Washington’s right hand man, and married to the daughter of one of the richest men in New York, Miranda is able to challenge the stereotypes that the students in New York seeing the show will have firmly ingrained and encourage them to fight the status quo. So, they are being taught a straightforward lesson that, regardless of your background, accomplishing your dreams is possible. However, perhaps the subtle message is more empowering, that regardless of whether or not you seek to work in an industry dominated by a certain type, there are still opportunities. By using Lin Manuel Miranda or Javier Munoz, the two actors who portray Alexander Hamilton, both being Latino actors, it thoroughly destroys the deeply ingrained ideologies of race and growing up poor, inspiring students and everyone who sees it that, no matter how you grow up, anyone can succeed, even if they grow up penniless like Hamilton or sought to write a hip hop musical like Miranda.

Hamilton serves to offer a direct visualization of the “Critical Race Theory, Hip Hop, and ‘Huck Finn”: Narrative Inquiry in a High School English Classroom,” model by Jennifer Martin. By applying the show to the three main pillars of the model, prioritizing participant voices, challenging traditional ideologies of race, and disrupting deeply ingrained ideologies, it is obvious that Hamilton does all three. By using actors of color to play traditionally white characters, emphasizing rap and hip-hop to tell the historical story, and repeatedly pointing out that Alexander Hamilton grew up in poverty and rose to the top, while being portrayed by a Latino actor, all three pillars are evident. Hamilton is hopefully just the beginning of this phenomenon, opening the door for others to do something similar or even more revolutionary. As stated before, “history is happenin’ in Manhattan, and we just happen to be” living in a time where the racial divides in the country can be adequately addressed and maybe even destroyed through the utilization of pop culture.

 

Works Cited

Martin, J. L. (2014). Critical Race Theory, Hip Hop, and “Huck Finn”: Narrative Inquiry in                      a High School English Classroom. Urban Review: Issues And Ideas In Public                            Education, 46(2), 244-267.

Miranda, L. M. Hamilton: Original Broadway cast recording [MP3]. (2015). New York.

 

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