The last couple of weeks have been rough for a lot of us, I think it’s safe to say. Speaking for myself, I’ve moved past my narrow-minded anger and fallen into a vaguely numb state about the election and the incoming administration. I went to a protest march, donated money to the ACLU, signed petitions and attempted to contact Congressional offices to voice my opposition to Donald Trump (only to be thwarted by jammed voicemail boxes). But my anger has mostly been replaced with fatigue, and a willingness to wait and see what to do next.
But then, Hamilton came roaring in to save me from my detachment, and do what all great art does: inspire.
In case you haven’t heard, last night Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway. What possessed his staff to choose that show for him is beyond me, as from my perspective the ideology of Hamilton stands in direct opposition to Pence’s. But nevertheless he went, and the result is something both unsurprising and so very gratifying.
For starters, the New York theatregoing crowd repeatedly booed and heckled Pence at every opportunity, including in response to various lines in the musical itself. On top of that, during the performance of “What Comes Next?” (a song where King George tells the new leaders of America “good luck dealing with the rabble being angry at you”) the song was sung directly at Pence himself. And during the curtain call at the end of the show, Aaron Burr performer Brandon T. Dixon implored Pence on behalf of the entire show to govern for all Americans, and respect the national diversity that Hamilton itself is trying to represent. From everything I read, it sounds like a beautiful bit of artistic catharsis, of artists seeing a potential oppressor and trying to direct their art towards him.
Of course this morning, Trump and other conservatives were quick to denounce the show, with #BoycottHamilton already trending on Twitter. Hamilton’s cast was accused of being rude and disrespectful by the President-elect, and there was a great deal of hand-wringing by the right about how inappropriate it was for the show to attack Pence in such a way (even though the actual booing and heckling came from the crowd and not the performers). But this condemnation not only misses the point of art and the First Amendment in general, but also shows a complete obliviousness to what Hamilton itself is meant to stand for.
Obviously, the First Amendment protects the right to free speech, which not only includes the vocal condemnation of the audience but also the artistic expression of the performers on-stage. On that basis alone, the idea that the show is somehow in the wrong for taking the opportunity to call out Mike Pence is absurd. They have a right to express their opposition the same as everyone else, and condemning them is no different then condemning those of us who have marched or donated or called or signed against Trump/Pence in the days since the election. Free speech is free speech, and that cast and that audience are entitled to utilize it the same as everyone else.
But furthermore, to condemn Hamilton for such artistic expression is to be unaware of what Hamilton is meant to represent, and what Broadway theatre as a medium represents as well. A major component of Hamilton’s design is the reclaiming and recontextualizing of American history for immigrants and minorities. The race-blind casting, the repeated references to Hamilton himself as being an immigrant, and the rap/hip-hop music are all meant to reinforce the idea that the American story is not explicitly a white one, and that while the most prominent figures in the creation of America were white they can stand as precursors and inspirations to all of us, regardless of our skin or our citizenship status. And on top of that, there is at least one LGBTQ cast member in Hamilton right now: Javier Munoz, who currently plays Alexander Hamilton himself, is openly gay and HIV+.
With all of that in mind, how could anyone expect this cast and crew to see someone so implicitly opposed to who they are and what their show represents come into their theater and not respond to it? How could a show whose biggest applause line is “Immigrants: we get the job done!” not instill an inherent sense of opposition to someone like Mike Pence in its audience? Hamilton is a show born of multiculturalism and reconciling America’s past with its future, and anyone criticizing it now was never going to be an audience for it.
I listened to Hamilton the morning of Election Day, before I went to vote. By the next day, I wasn’t sure how long it would be before I could listen to it again without being bitter. That ended last night, when I blasted half of Act One off Spotify in celebration of the show’s moment of protest. And when I woke up this morning, I felt less numb than I did yesterday. In fact, I felt more motivated to be creative than I have in almost two weeks. Because in their challenge of Mike Pence last night, the cast of Hamilton reminded me of the power of protest through art. They reminded me of how necessary it is to produce art that speaks out against those who would hold us back, and that motivates others to push us forward. And as much as ever before, I want to make art that does the same thing.
That’s far from the only thing I could or should do in the months and years ahead; in fact, we all need to be ready to do a lot more to oppose what this Presidency might attempt. But whatever else happens, I know I need to write day and night like I’m running out of time. And I will.
So apparently Jurassic World made a metric ton of money last weekend, and I’m going to guess that every single person reading this contributed to that box office haul. Besides that, it also seems like many of you enjoyed the film, and much more than I did. And part of me greatly envies those who were able to enjoy Jurassic World without reservation and not be bothered by all of its missteps. But as much as I lament the film’s flaws, and my own inability to see past them, I am also greatly annoyed by the return of the “Turn Your Brain Off!” defense that is often deployed in the name of big blockbusters like this. To those that make such an argument, I would respectfully refuse, and I’ll explain why.
While Michael Keaton may be best known for his time as the Caped Crusader, that is far from the only thing he should be remembered for. His performances in Beetlejuice, Jackie Brown, The Other Guys, and Game 6, not to mention hilarious guest spots on Frasier and 30 Rock and many other roles, all showcase a sharp yet malleable performer, and one that seemed content to walk away from superstardom to pursue more ambiguous artistic aspirations. This seeming avoidance of the traditional leading man spotlight has made Keaton an engaging and unpredictable actor, but has also kept that famous superhero as his most recognizable role. The central question that Birdman raises is whether the big, broad appeal of media celebrity is better or worse than the deeper, yet potentially insignificant impact of “true art”. It’s a compelling question, and one that is brilliantly personified by Keaton, but one that is almost drowned out by Alejandro G. Inarritu and company’s blunt pretentiousness.
One great scene in the wall-to-wall greatness of Whiplash shows Andrew (Miles Teller) having dinner with his dad and extended family. The conversational round robin leads to Andrew’s musical career being dismissed and disrespected in favor of his cousins’ football and Model UN accomplishments. It’s a great and infuriating scene- especially resonant for anyone who aspires to a career as an artist- and a few scenes later, when Andrew is playing the drums so hard it leaves his hands and sticks slick with blood, it serves as an impactful emphasis of how unfounded such disrespect is. This is the core of Whiplash: it is a paean to the drive and commitment of the true artists, and what it truly demands of a person to be one.