What We Get—and Lose—by Turning History Into Entertainment

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History, they say, is written by the victors. We might also say that history’s written by the entertainers.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing—but it does bring its share of asterisks to the party.

Take Hamilton, the smash Broadway hit that became another smash on Disney+ this year. The musical comes with some issues that families should be aware of (as you’ll see in my review), but there’s no question Hamilton is pretty good, too. It’s stocked with top-flight performances, earwig-y songs and a delightful, contemporary energy. And, as I said in my review, it’s filled with a lot of really good history, too. Based on the great biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Hamilton gives you a semester’s worth of Founding Father-related education in under three hours.

“I felt an enormous responsibility to be as historically accurate as possible, while still telling the most dramatic story possible,” Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda told The Atlantic in 2015 . “And when I did part from the historical record or take dramatic license, I made sure I was able to defend it to Ron, because I knew that I was going to have to defend it in the real world. None of those choices are made lightly.”

Miranda neatly defines the promise and perils of historical entertainment right there. Because as entertaining as history can be, not every bit of history is particularly entertaining. Some stuff is going to have to be added or subtracted or finessed to create a more satisfying story arc.

We can look at our own lives as proof. I believe that all of our lives are the stuff of great stories. Each of us could have a compelling movie made about us. God gave us stories worth telling.

But that doesn’t mean that every moment of our lives makes for a riveting narrative. We can skip most of our trips to the grocery store and the time we spend clipping our toenails. Even significant events in our lives can be a little snoozy. We know this. So even when we tell our own stories, we might be inclined to change the order of some moments to make it more coherent, or to downplay one part and emphasize another to make it funnier or more winsome or to cast us in a better light. And, as any fisherman knows, sometimes exaggeration can play a part in our own oral histories, as well.

The same goes for musicals like Hamilton, or biopics like last year’s Harriet or Ford v. Ferrari. Tom Hanks’ A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood took some facts, then molded those facts into a fictional story in order to get to what its creators thought was the real truth of the subject.

And a lot of times, we can suss out facts from fiction just fine, thanks. But sometimes the real facts can be hard to discern.

Hamilton, again, is a fine example. We know that Hamilton didn’t look like Lin-Manuel Miranda. We know that the founding fathers weren’t Black and prone to breaking into rap during political debates. We accept this departure from strict history for the sake of a good story. And it does stay true to history’s broad brushstrokes to be sure. For instance, Alexander Hamilton really did have an affair and paid hush money to his mistress’s husband.

But while the play tells us that longtime rivals Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Aaron Burr confronted Hamilton over alleged financial improprieties tied to the affair, they had nothing to do with it. It was actually a few other guys who did so—including future president James Monroe.

In the grand scheme of things, this moment doesn’t mean much. Other omissions might change how we feel about the show’s protagonist: Some have accused Hamilton of white-washing this Founding Father’s legacy to make him more palatable to 21st-century audiences. While the play’s Alexander Hamilton is a fervent abolitionist, the real Hamilton’s views seem to be (according to some historians) a bit more complex. Writes Brady Langmann for Esquire:

Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history of law at Harvard, pointed out to The New York Times that Hamilton’s record shows little action against slavery, even if he did openly attack Thomas Jefferson’s racist views. Gordon-Reed said the view of Hamilton as an ardent abolitionist is “an idea of who we would like Hamilton to be.”

All of this, I think, is simply a reminder to parents—especially parents who might use movies and television shows to add a little pizzazz to their kids’ history lessons—that histories, like our own stories, are complex. Characters, even those who truly lived and walked and did things, are rarely so one-dimensional as to fit neatly in a two-hour character arc.

We can learn lots of stuff from quality, fact-based historical dramas and comedies and musicals. They can be a good supplement to our understanding. But they never tell the whole story. And we should never imagine they do.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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