‘Hamilton’ reminds Hollywood that non-white actors can sell tickets, too

Janhavi Nemawarkar

“Hamilton” won eleven Tony Awards last night including Best Musical. Coming off a record breaking 16 nominations and impressive box office showings, the musical is a bona fide Broadway phenomenon that has spilled over into popular culture. But perhaps its most resounding impact is its role in challenging conventional casting norms. By using actors of color to play the Founding Fathers, “Hamilton” is proof that smart, diverse casting in all media enhances storytelling. 

Calls for increased diversity in media have become commonplace recently, propelled further by this year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which drew national attention amid a lack of acting nominations for non-white actors for the second year in a row. The endless catalogue of reports of directors casting white actors for non-white characters grows larger every day. The same tired excuses of lead actor marketability plague the discussion, a justification that rarely gives minority actors chances to become household names, and at the same time gives countless chances to unknown white actors.

“Hamilton,” then, is a disruption of the dominant practice of whitewashing, the casting of white actors in the parts of non-white characters. Its long and often offensive history reinforces the dominance of whiteness in our society. In contrast, the musical’s casting of multiethnic actors to play white characters reveals new truths about the United States today. “Hamilton” does not try to convince the audience of the historical accuracy of its casting choices, but showcases the parallel between the struggles of the founding of America and modern immigrant experiences. The lyrics of its songs are love letters to marginalized immigrant groups, peppered with allusions to ’90s rap (an art form forged in Latino and black communities) and the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Likewise, the recent #StarringJohnCho Twitter campaign included photoshopped movie posters that replaced the lead actors with pictures of Asian-American actor John Cho. This effort challenged the long-held assumption in Hollywood that, unless it is absolutely necessitated by the story for the character to be played by an actor of a specific ethnicity, the character is white.

The response to whitewashing often includes the production of movies centered around the historical adversity of minorities. But while movies about historical struggles are distinctly powerful and necessary, the focus on them leads to a one-dimensional expression of what it means to be a minority in America. Past black Oscar winners have predominantly won for subservient roles, including portrayals of slaves and maids. This further accentuates the trend of minority actors being pigeonholed into certain types of roles. Our stories encompass more than adversity; they include love and comedy and a fair amount of pain, and all facets of them should be explored. The precedent of “Hamilton” is one that challengers creators to use diverse casting in meaningful ways without the arbitrary limits of historical accuracy. It is art, after all. 

Everyone in Hollywood loves “Hamilton.” It’s about time that they adopted some of its lessons.

Nemawarkar is a Plan II sophomore from Austin. She is an associate editor. Follow her on Twitter @janhavin97.