'Hamilton' on Disney+: Should we be worried about censorship?
UPDATE: During the time I wrote and published this blog post, Lin-Manuel Miranda confirmed on his Twitter account that the film version of Hamilton would be censoring two of its three major expletives.
Last night, Disney released the official trailer for the musical sensation Hamilton. The show, featuring the original principal Broadway cast members, was captured live on film during the course of three days in June 2016. Hamilton was originally set for a theatrical debut in October 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shuffling in plans, and the film was super fast-tracked to premiere exclusively on July 3rd via the Disney+ streaming service. Fans like me rejoiced all over the world. Even though I already know virtually the entire show by heart, and I've had the opportunity to see the national tour live during their stop at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, I was still excited at the thought of seeing how the original actors physically imbued their performances. Watching the trailer and getting a peek of the expressive Leslie Odom Jr. gave me chills. And then, as the minute-long clip came to a close, I saw something that kind of brought me back to Earth: Hamilton had an MPAA rating of PG-13. It was nothing I had ever considered before—How would the stage performance translate to the guidelines of the big screen? Hamilton is no Avenue Q; it's not an extremely risqué show to begin with. But given the adherence of the Disney+ platform to stick to family-friendly content, it begs the question: Will Hamilton be censored in any way, and if it is, does it even matter?
For nearly a century, the Disney name has always evoked the mental imagery of magical pixie fairies and cute, cartoonish animals with overly-expressive eyes. So when the company says "family-friendly", it's difficult not to think specifically of five-year-olds. However, looking at the scope of content that Disney+ carries, I realize that "family-friendly" may not be as restrictive as we might think. The most obvious examples to point out would be the Marvel Studios and Star Wars franchises, most of which are PG-13 films to which we still bring kids along without little hesistation. Then you have The Simpsons Movie, and I argue that beautiful masterpiece has more offensive content than anything in Hamilton. (I'm specifically calling you out, Bart Simpson's penis.) In that context, the only part of Hamilton's visual content I might think twice about is their song "Say No To This", where the title character is tempted (or, you know, completely willing) to start an affair. That said, the MPAA's description of the film's content does include "some suggestive material", and since the scene doesn't actually contain any removal of clothes or simulated sex, I think most families wouldn't find that scene too inappropriate, and it will be left intact.
The biggest hurdle to clear would be the other half of the content description: language. When it comes to profanity, Hamilton's lyrics are tame at best; most of what they say is nothing kids haven't heard at school since they were eleven. I watched The Sandlot—rated PG—when I was young, and those kids say "shit" just as much as the musical. I also don't see any issues with Alexander Hamilton's constant depiction as a "bastard" and "whore's son", as both of those terms are used in their pure, historical context. The show's primary concern, then, is its usage of the big one: "Fuck". The MPAA's rules regarding allowance of the word is admittedly weird, all at once firm and flexible. In most cases, a PG-13 rating only allows for one utterance, so long as it's non-sexual; if it is said twice, or used once in a sexual context, the movie will be rated R. While Hamilton plays around with it some cases, the original play explicitly uses "fuck" three times. However, according to their rules:
"The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous."
Fellow PG-13 movies like The Martian and The Expendables 3 each contain two occasions of the word, so it's possible that the MPAA may have given Hamilton some leniency here too.
However, despite everything I've already said, Disney is still Disney, and the brand name is all over this film. If you're asking for my official prediction, I just don't see them accepting the show as is, without any modification whatsoever. At best, they run a parental advisory graphic before the film; at worse, some or all of the "fucks" in question are removed. But in the latter case, is that really as bad as we might make it out to be? When asked about potential censorship back in February, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda reportedly said:
"If we have to mute a word here or there to reach the largest audience possible, I'm OK with that, because your kids already have the original language memorized. I don't think we're depriving anyone of anything if we mute an f-bomb here or there to make our rating."
So the real question we should ask ourselves is: Does this tiny amount of censorship take away from the show, its message, and its impact? Absolutely not. Like Miranda suggested, so many people have been listening to the soundtrack for years and already know every word; we'll all most likely be singing along in our living rooms anyway. This movie isn't so much about a few words. Instead, it's an opportunity to witness the visual splendor, including costumes, choreography, and set production that, as someone who has seen the show live, probably doesn't get as much credit as they all should. Millions of people will now get to see Hamilton in its full glory, and even if Disney mutes a couple of words, it won't mute the emotions we will all feel watching it.