On Period Pieces

Hamilton is an extremely interesting case study for this week’s theme of Denial, Myth, and Nostalgia. The selection of articles responding to Hamilton—both celebrating it and critiquing it—offer different perspectives on the validity of using myth in conveying history. One major underlying dilemma is whether to prioritize the truth (already in and of itself, potentially unknowable) over political or artistic purposes. Also embedded in this is the validity of using myth, nostalgia, or denial to tell stories about the past. None of the articles offer an outright condemnation of Hamilton, especially not of Hamilton as a Broadway musical with a uniquely minority-majority cast (although in good company with shows Fela and The Color Purple)—however those that critique the show take issue with the historical actors Miranda chose to centralize, the sort of ‘Founding Fathers’ chic subsequently reinforces, and the constructing heroes from the past.

These readings also reminded of conversations we have had in class and on this blog discussing films such as Hidden Figures, as well as critiques I have read of the film Selma, which for example The Washington Post claimed unfairly depicted Lydon B. Johnson, while the New Yorker argued it was in fact ‘more than fair,’ and the New York Times fell somewhere in the middle. Aside from arguments about the actual events that transpired, and the words that were spoken, at the heart of all of these debates again is the question of whether the political, social, or artistic ends justify the means—which range from re-writing the truth completely, cherry-picking which truths to tell, and how a story is framed and who is framed as the lead protagonist (especially when considering causality). The debate that rages over these issues also shows the importance that is being placed on popular culture as a source of historical fact. It is this last element that I think makes the strongest argument for prioritizing accurate storytelling. With this it is also important to note however that what is deemed accurate is very much under debate, and to most especially interrogate accuracies that conveniently reflect a mythos like the ‘Founders Chic.’

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