History, Place, and "Hamilton’s America"
A Q&A with Documentary Director Alex Horwitz
Two weeks ago I caught a sneak peek (the capstone to the White House’s South by South Lawn festival) of the latest addition to the Hamilton musical craze: a documentary by PBS that has been affectionately dubbed on social media as the “Hamildoc.”
Hamilton’s America, which premieres on Friday, October 21, tracks not only the creation of the musical phenomenon but also the world and history of the musical’s namesake. Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that if you show a documentary about a historical musical to historic preservationists that they will automatically be drawn to how the narrative centers around old places.
What I loved about the documentary was how it revealed the connection of old places to creativity. All through the film Lin-Manuel Miranda and various members of the original cast visited National Parks and other historic sites and experienced what preservationists already know—that these spaces provide personal, powerful, and inspirational connections to the past.
The documentary, like the musical, stands at the center of conversation regarding the early years of the republic and, as the new National Museum of African American History and Culture says, the paradox of liberty. As a historian I appreciated that through interviews and site visits, the film addressed what many see as missing from the Broadway show—a direct conversation of the role of slavery in early America. There is a moment at the end of the film where Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, visited Mount Vernon’s slave quarters. It is both incredibly honest and poignant.
And since I was able to see the musical in person a few months ago, I can honestly say that Hamilton’s America puts you as close to “the room where it happens” without actually being in New York City. With that in mind, and in order to delve more deeply into the documentary, I asked Alex Horwitz, the director of Hamilton’s America, a few questions about his work, the film, and the role historic places play in creativity and inspiration.
One of the things that struck me while watching Hamilton’s America was how the story was rooted in terms of place. Can you explain how you framed the story of Alexander Hamilton and the musical through these various historic spaces? What made that an effective storytelling mechanism?
The premise of the film was always to scrap the standard behind-the-scenes approach to a film about a musical in favor of a journey through history with Lin and his colleagues as our guides. The field trips to sites of historic significance get us out of the confinement of the Richard Rogers Theater and away from talking head interviews and paintings. The visuals add to the cinematic experience, so it's less static. But most importantly, they give the audience a contemporary, visual touchstone with which to connect to relatively old history. The sense of "oh, that's an actual place I can go visit" does much more to bring history to life than a portrait or etching.
There is one particular moment in the film when the actors visit Valley Forge, and Okieriete Onaodowan talks about how the visit changed his perception of what battles looked like in the 18th century. Did you get a sense of how visits like that one—to the real, historic locations—influenced the actors’ performances?
Some of the cast told me how much they enjoyed the field trips and how much they took back with them into the theater. In some cases, the actors had been planning such trips on their own for the sake of research and inspiration, and I just facilitated the trip with cameras present. In other cases, I suggested certain trips. Each actor has their own process and their own penchant to absorb or discard external information in their work. But let's face it: this cast didn't need any help from a documentary to do the amazing things they do. I can't take any credit for their incredible performances.
Tom Mayes, our colleague here at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote in his series on "Why Old Places Matter" about how old places provide inspiration as centers of creativity. I was struck by how evident that is in your documentary. In your experience putting together the film, how did Miranda and the other artists react or take inspiration from their visits to places like Hamilton Grange and Valley Forge?
Lin plainly states in our film—sitting in Aaron Burr's bedroom at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Manhattan—that he sometimes went there to write. We see him doing so. I don't think a mind like Lin's needs the stimulus of an 18th-century house to get the juices flowing, but it's obviously an experience he enjoyed, because he repeated it several times. I'm sure every artist finds inspiration in different places in their own way. I can only speak for myself by saying that as a New Yorker, I walk around the city constantly fascinated by the relics of hundreds of years of history all around me. The architecture, the graveyards, the street planning, the topography—all around our city I see the breadcrumbs of our American story, and I certainly took that with me as I made Hamilton's America. If there's one thing I want audiences to take away from the film, it's that our history is not so distant as it may seem. We can still feel the effects of our Founders' work in our everyday lives, and we can still share the fields, streets, and buildings they inhabited, if we just look around.
One of the ongoing discussions among historians about Hamilton (the musical) is the near-absence in the show of an outward discussion surrounding slavery. Your documentary attempts to address that in a number of ways—particularly in a moment at the end with Christopher Jackson (who plays George Washington) at Mount Vernon. How does the film convey the musical as a tool of historical understanding and education beyond what is actually performed on stage?
Ultimately, I can add very little to this conversation beyond the musical's own marketing campaign, which stated it so eloquently: "This is a story of America then, told by America now." That's about as simple and meaningful an understanding as we need. But as a filmmaker, certainly, I wasn't going to follow Christopher Jackson, the African American actor who plays George Washington, on a field trip to Mount Vernon—where he laid a wreath on Washington's grave and toured the slave quarters—without asking him some questions about that experience.
Apart from being a piece of entertainment, the film is designed to be a teaching tool and an earnest discussion of American history, and it does me no good as a filmmaker to obfuscate the darker truths of America's founders. The musical speaks for itself, and I wouldn't presume to speak on behalf of Lin or his colleagues with regard to how they conceived their show. As for a documentary about American history as told by a young, diverse cast of actors, I simply wanted to ask those actors what they thought of the characters they're portraying, and I think we got some eloquent and honest answers. I just want people to think of our heroes as human—capable of such greatness, but flawed like the rest of us.
Hamilton's America is a RadicalMedia documentary for Great Performances that debuted on PBS in 2016.