Hamilton and Our Lady of Guadalupe
Race-Swapping in Art
There are some great examples of race-swapping in art. The Wiz from 1978 replaces all the characters in the Wizard of Oz with people of color. Photographer Cara Romero stages a Last Supper with Indigenous artists and Marcus Amerman’s Buffalo Boy in the center (similarly, the passion play Corpus Christi by Terrence McNally replaces Jesus and his disciples with openly gay people). Jay-Z’s video “Moonlight” recreates Friends with a cast of black actors, and Hamilton replaces famous white people with actors of color.
I’ll admit, the music gave me goosebumps. The quality of the singing, dancing, and lyrics was beyond my expectations. It was one of the best, if not the best musical I’ve ever seen! And yet, the story was merely a remake of the classic, naïve, racist, sexist (it didn’t pass the Bechtel test), Eurocentric American musical. Nothing ‘groundbreaking.’ No counter-narrative to the heteronormative patriarchal text that has been distributed to millions of students throughout this country. It’s the settler colonial narrative par excellence. Native Americans aren’t even mentioned once! Of course, it doesn’t include any nonwhite characters either, an omission that must have been intentional.
Hamilton is a strange case of nonwhite bodies whitewashing history. Perhaps it’s a parody, but like so many parodies, it’s better than the original. Does that high quality and relatability eclipse its subversive message that contrary to the dominant white nationalist narrative, it’s nonwhite bodies that founded, and built, what we now call the USA?
Maybe. These actors repeat lines out of a history book written by a white man, about white people. What’s the point in that? Is the story of Hamilton and the Founding Fathers a story worth retelling, a story we want more people connecting with?
Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” expresses the feelings that I am having. In the video, black actors recreate scenes from the Friends episode “The One Where No One’s Ready,” repeating the exact same lines from the original story. The video takes a turn once the cast takes a break from filming. Vox’s Caroline Framke describes it:
Carmichael wanders off to the side of the stage, and asks his friend, Hannibal Buress, what he thinks of the “black Friends.” Buress immediately scoffs, “It was terrible, man. It was wack as shit. It was just Seinfeld episodes with black people. Who asked for that?”
“When they asked me to do it, I was like, ‘Okay, this is something that’s subversive, something that’ll turn culture on its head,’” Carmichael protests, but Buress is having none of it.
“You did a good job of subverting good comedy,” Buress replies. “You gonna do black Full House next?”
Then, as everyone else gets ready to keep rolling, the video breaks the multi-cam format to focus on Carmichael, looking around the set and hating everything about it. It’s at this point, nearly five minutes into the seven-minute video that Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” finally starts playing, his voice breathing that they’re “stuck in La La Land; even when we win, we gon’ lose.”
If you didn’t catch the depth of that wordplay the first time, the music video makes it clear as Carmichael walks off the Friends set, settles onto a park bench, and looks up at the night sky to the tune of Warren Beatty accidentally announcing that La La Land won the Oscar for Best Picture, when it should’ve been rightful winner Moonlight’s moment.
But this is the antithesis of Hollywood’s racebending, race lifting, or of the typical high school “White Side Story,” where a bunch of suburban kids represent oppressed cultures they know nothing about. Something else is happening.
Race-swapping can be a kind of “decolonial aesthetic,” which Walter Mignolo defines as an “intervention and re-valuation of what has been made invisible or devalued by the modern-colonial order.”
I’m not too familiar withrace-swapping in theater (I just learned that Patrick Stewart invented race-reversed casting) but I know Obama’s portrait artist Kehinde Wyley inserts contemporary black bodies into classical renaissance compositions. Cree artist Kent Monkman also race-swaps in his paintings and photographs by inserting queer and two-spirit native bodies into famous historical images that were used to erase them. Monkman likes to highlight how history is always a blend of fact and fantasy. In a way, by changing the race of George Washington, by suggesting that “anyone can play him,” Miranda reminds us that Washington is indeed a fictional character, not only on stage.
In Hamilton, we also get to see a nonwhite actor play something other than “the help.” Steven Paul Judd uses photoshop to change the races of characters in movies, so that, for example, Hopi women participate in the Rebellion alongside Princess Leia. In this way, Judd manages to write Hopi women into the Star Wars narrative, which is otherwise devoid of Indigenous people.
Hamilton inserts nonwhite bodies into a story that was used to erase them. Perhaps, more than Moonlight, we should compare it to what Paul Rucker is doing. Rucker creates Klan robes out of African cloth in order to remind us that the Ku Klux Klan mentality is not a relic from a racist past, but a force that still impacts US society and institutions today. “I decided that I was going to make the best quality Klan robes in America.” Miranda made the best quality white musical in America.
Is it good art? Is it decolonizing? Does it comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, or does it just comfort everyone? As one critic put it, perhaps marginalized artists have to be careful not to have so much of the colonial in their dialogue that it overshadows the dialogue of the marginalized. Otherwise, the art might serve, as Saul Epstein put it, as, “a version of aspiring to more diverse billionaires, more diverse prison guards; a post hoc attempt at full participation in the fantasy of “America”, as if slotting in people of color would make it, well… great again.”
At the same time, as we know, this is not the whole story. Through a visual mashup, a settler-colonial symbol now reminds POC of their own stories, of their own strengths, and of their own power. Our Lady of Guadalupe may be another example of race-swapping. Arguably the most distributed image of all time, on one level she represents the quickest way to convert or assimilate a people: make the new God look like them so they can relate to it. But on another level, she represents the best way to stay connected to your indigenous roots in the face of genocide: make the new God look like you, so you are continually reminded of your own people.
“Program or be programmed,” as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff puts it, and I want to consider that this metaphor of file sharing permissions could be useful when looking at Hamilton and race-swapping. Nonwhite people repurpose and remix the dominant culture’s materials in order to read/write them, rewrite them, and resist them. A counter-intuitive Aikido move using the power of the opponent against them; a way to exercise some degree of agency and autonomy–to experience something other than “read-only.”