Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Broadway production of Hamilton
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Hamilton: how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical rewrote the story of America

Finally arriving in London, the rap masterpiece turns the story of a forgotten founding father into a Shakespearean drama of ambition and revenge.

On 12 May 2009, a clean-cut 29-year-old called Lin-Manuel Miranda attended a “poetry jam” at the White House. Held four months after the inauguration of America’s first black president, the evening “looked as if it were meant to signal a new White House taste in the performing arts”, Mike Hale wrote at the New York Times. “All of the performers were either of colour or married to [the liberal author] Michael Chabon or Michael Chabon himself.”

With Barack and Michelle Obama in the front row, the composer and actor Miranda – already the winner of a Tony Award for his musical In the Heights, about gentrification in a Hispanic district in New York – announced that he had started a new project. “I’m actually working on a hip hop album,” Miranda said, standing next to his long-time collaborator Alex Lacamoire, ready to accompany him on the piano. “It’s a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.”

The audience tittered politely. It’s hard to remember now that Hamilton is a worldwide hit (opening in London on 6 December), but there was a time when it seemed like madness to tell the story of the founding fathers through rap battles. If American schoolchildren knew Hamilton at all, it was as the face on the ten-dollar bill – a fitting tribute for the first treasury secretary – where he was depicted as a sombre, white-haired figure in a high collar and neck scarf.

Then the music started, and Miranda launched into the show’s opening number, introducing its central character and its themes: immigration, ambition, jealousy and how history gets written.

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,
dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by providence,
impoverished, in squalor,
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter,
By being a self-starter.
By 14, they placed him in charge of a trading charter…

The audience’s faces lit up as the exuberance of these lyrics rolled over them. The rhymes come not just at the end of lines but in the middle, too, and not just at the end of words but in their middle syllables (“forgotten”/ “spot in”; “providence”/“impoverished”). Words mean one thing the first time they are used, then flip (“father”/“farther”) or take the listener in unexpected directions. (Look at how that “by” changes!)

The musical that grew out of this performance is – like America – a melting pot. “It’s a classic striver’s tale of a young man, a fatherless orphan trying to achieve great things,” says JT Rogers, the American author of the award-winning play Oslo, about the 1993 Israel-Palestine peace talks. “[Miranda] picked this humdinger story of betrayal and subterfuge and cheating on your wife, but the political act, which is so sublime, is having the founding fathers played by non-white men. It expands the idea of who our story is about.”

In the original production, Miranda – whose father came to the US mainland from Puerto Rico when he was 17 – played Hamilton, with Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and George Washington played by African Americans, and Eliza Hamilton played by Phillipa Soo, whose paternal grandparents moved to the US from China. The only major role given to a white actor was George III, played with an exaggeratedly upper-class accent by Jonathan Groff of the Netflix crime drama Mindhunter.

Echoing this, the musical gleefully mixes show tunes and rap, harpsichords and close harmonies. It is glowingly obvious that Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up listening to R&B and hip hop pioneers such as Busta Rhymes, Biggie Smalls, Brandy and Destiny’s Child, alongside Broadway legends such as Stephen Sondheim (Follies) and Jonathan Larson (Rent), as well as old-school composers such as Gilbert and Sullivan.

Lin-Manuel Miranda. Photo: Hilary Swift / New York Times / Redux / Eyevine

When George Washington introduces himself, he claims to be “the model of a modern major general/The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all/Lining up to put me on a pedestal”. After a big argument breaks out among the cabinet, Thomas Jefferson taunts Hamilton with the line, “Such a blunder, sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder” – a clear echo of Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 song “The Message”. (“It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”)

The musical, in effect, speaks all the cultural languages of America, and it echoes Obama’s ability to change cadences depending on his audience: “a more straight-up delivery for a luncheon of business people in the Loop; a folksier approach at a downstate VFW [veterans’ event]; echoes of the pastors of the black church when he is in one”, according to his biographer David Remnick in The Bridge.

Because of the success of Hamilton – it has been sold out on Broadway since August 2015, won 11 Tony Awards and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and is on tour in Chicago and Los Angeles – there is now an industry devoted to uncovering and explaining its references. Yet the sheer ebullience of the soundscape is not enough to explain why it became a hit. To understand that, we need to understand the scope of its ambition, which is nothing less than giving America a new origin story. “Every generation rewrites the founders in their own image,” says Nancy Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University and the author of a biography of Aaron Burr. “He [Miranda] rewrote the founders in the image of Obama, for the age of Obama.”

In doing so, Miranda created a fan base that mirrors the “Obama coalition” of Democrat voters: college-educated coastal liberals and mid-to-low-income minorities. (When the musical first hit Broadway in 2015, some tickets went for thousands of dollars; others were sold cheaply in a daily street lottery or given away to local schoolchildren.) He also gave his audiences another gift. Just as Obama did in his 2008 campaign, Hamilton’s post-racial view of history offers Americans absolution from the original sin of their country’s birth – slavery. It rescues the idea of the US from its tainted origins.

***

Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea for Hamilton on holiday, where he had taken an 860-page biography of the man by the US historian Ron Chernow. On its release in 2004, the New York Times’s David Brooks applauded the book for its portrayal of the “most progressive and… most neglected” founding father. Brooks added: “He is the most neglected, first because he was a relentless climber (and nobody has unalloyed views about ambition), second because he was a great champion of commerce (and nobody has uncomplicated views about that either) and third because his most bitter rivals, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, outlived him by decades and did everything they could to bury his reputation.”

Miranda faithfully follows this interpretation and has given Chernow a percentage of the musical’s profits in return. His protagonist is part Marty McFly, unable to back down from a challenge; part 1990s rapper, flaunting his wealth and influence; and part Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, an irritating genius who inspires bitter jealousy in those without his prodigious gifts. Fittingly, the musical has its own Salieri, a slightly older man called Aaron Burr who begins as “the prodigy of Princeton College” but finds himself continually eclipsed by Hamilton.

Burr narrates the arc of Hamilton’s life, confessing at the start that he is the “damn fool who shot him”. He takes us from the island of St Croix, where the orphan’s writing ability prompts his town to collect the money to send him to New York, to the early days of the American Revolutionary War, and through the political battle for supremacy that followed America’s victory over Britain.

Throughout this sweep of history, Burr’s and Hamilton’s lives are intertwined. They serve together in the army and work as lawyers in nearby offices, and eventually Burr takes the Senate seat held by Hamilton’s father-in-law, rising to become vice-president. Miranda generously gives Burr the musical’s show-stopper, “Wait for It”, in which he vocalises his jealousy. “Hamilton doesn’t hesitate./He exhibits no restraint./He takes, and he takes, and he takes/And he keeps winning anyway… And if there’s a reason/He seems to thrive when so few survive, then goddammit/I’m willing to wait for it.”

 Some historians feel that Burr gets treated badly by the musical’s mythologising. “Ron Chernow’s Burr is a pure villain,” Nancy Isenberg tells me. “Miranda makes him sympathetic – but he fits him into another trope which is used to attack Burr, which is that he doesn’t have any principles.”

In the musical, the duel in which Burr kills Hamilton is caused by the latter’s decision to endorse Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800 – better a man he disagreed with than a flip-flopper like Burr, goes the reasoning. To Isenberg, this is part of a pattern in the musical of turning principled political disagreements into personal rivalries. To boost Hamilton’s progressive credentials, she says, Burr’s are downplayed. The senator notably educated his daughter Theodosia with as much care as if she were a boy; he was attacked by the Federalist Party for his association with free blacks in 1800.

By contrast, Isenberg says that Hamilton was far more conservative in terms of his class politics than the musical allows (he was aided throughout his career by his wealthy, slave-owning father-in-law, Philip Schuyler). “He supported child labour!” she says, with some exasperation. “Think about a song about that.”

None of this would matter to her if the musical were treated as entertainment rather than a history lesson – particularly at a time when Donald Trump is undermining the very idea of truth. “The last thing we need to do is indulge in this patriotic myth-making,” she says. “For me, history should be jarring, not wrapped up in a pretty bow. I’m not into feel-good history.”

***

There is, of course, a great theatrical tradition of “patriotic myth-making”, and it explains another adjective that is frequently applied to Hamilton: Shakespearean. England’s national playwright was instrumental in smearing Richard III as a hunchbacked child-killer, portraying the French as our natural enemies and turning the villainous Banquo of Holinshed’s Chronicles into the noble figure claimed as an ancestor by the Stuarts, and therefore Shakespeare’s patron James VI and I.

James Shapiro, a professor of English literature at Columbia University, New York, and the author of several books on Shakespeare, first saw the musical during its early off-Broadway run. “It was the closest I’ve ever felt to experiencing what I imagine it must have been like to have attended an early performance of, say, Richard III, on the Elizabethan stage,” he tells me. “But this time, it was my own nation’s troubled history that I was witnessing.”

Shapiro says that Shakespeare’s first set of history plays deals with the recent past, ending with Richard III; he then went back further to create an English origin story through Richard II and Henry V. “Lin-Manuel Miranda was trying to grasp the fundamental problems underlying contemporary American culture,” he adds. “He might, like Shakespeare, have gone back a century and explored the civil war. But I suspect that he saw that to get at the deeper roots of what united and divided Americans meant going back even further, to the revolution. No American playwright has ever managed to explain the present by reimagining so inventively that distant past.” And where Shakespeare had Holinshed’s Chronicles, Miranda had Ron Chernow.

There are Shakespearean references throughout his play. In “Take a Break”, Hamilton writes to his sister-in-law, Angelica:

They think me Macbeth and ambition is my folly.
I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain.
Madison is Banquo, Jefferson’s Macduff
And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane.

Shapiro says that these “casual echoes of famous lines” are less important than the lessons that Miranda has taken about how to write history. “Another way of putting it is that anyone can quote Shakespeare; very few can illuminate so brilliantly a nation’s past and, through that, its present.”

However, these lyrics also show that Hamilton’s self-knowledge is limited: if he has a tragic flaw, it’s not ambition but his belief that his verbal dexterity will protect him. In the second half of the musical, when he is left alone in New York for the summer, trying to get his debt plan past Congress, he begins an affair with a woman called Maria Reynolds. Her husband finds out and begins to blackmail him.

When Hamilton’s enemies threaten to expose him – claiming that the regular payments from his bank account must be embezzlement from the treasury – he thinks he has the answer. “I’ll write my way out/Overwhelm them with honesty.”

It doesn’t work. In revealing the sex scandal, Hamilton successfully clears himself of financial misconduct, but he blows apart his marriage – his wife, Eliza, burns their love letters, depriving the historical record of evidence of his good side – and turns Angelica against him, too, as she chooses her loyalty to her sister over her love for him. He also explodes his chance of succeeding John Adams as the next Federalist in the White House. “You’re never gonna be president now,” sings Jefferson, tauntingly.

These lines gained an uncomfortable new relevance when Lin-Manuel Miranda hosted Saturday Night Live in October 2016, just after a recording of Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women surfaced. “Never gonna be president now,” Miranda crooned to a portrait of Trump on the SNL corridor wall. But it turns out that sex scandals aren’t the dynamite they used to be.

***

I love Hamilton – I think the level of my nerdery about it so far has probably made that clear – but I find it fascinating that its overtly political agenda has been so little discussed, beyond noting the radicalism of casting black actors as white founders. Surely this is the “Obama play”, in the way that David Hare’s Stuff Happens became the “Bush play” or The Crucible became the theatre’s response to McCarthyism. It’s just unusual, in that its response to the contemporary mood is a positive one, rather than sceptical or scathing. (And it has an extra resonance now that a white nationalist is in the White House. One of the first acts of dissent against the Trump regime was when his vice-president, Mike Pence, attended the musical in November 2016 and received a polite post-curtain speech from the cast about tolerance. “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologise to Mike Pence for their terrible behaviour,” tweeted Trump, inevitably.)

Hamilton tries to make its audience feel OK about patriotism and the idealism of early America. It has, as the British theatre director Robert Icke put it to me this summer, “a kind of moral evangelism” that is hard for British audiences to swallow. In order to achieve this, we are allowed to see Hamilton’s personal moral shortcomings, but the uglier aspects of the early days of America still have to be tidied away.

There’s a brief mention, for instance, of Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings – whom he systematically raped over many years. But the casting of black and Hispanic actors makes it hard for the musical to deal directly with slavery, and so the issue only drips into the narrative rather than being confronted. There’s a moment after the battle of Yorktown when “black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom – not yet”. Another sour note is struck in one of the cabinet rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, in which the former notes acidly, “Your debts are paid cos you don’t pay for labour.”

In early workshops, there was a third cabinet battle over slavery – and the song is available on The Hamilton Mixtape, a series of reworkings and offcuts from the musical. When a proposal is brought before Washington to abolish slavery, Hamilton tells the cabinet:

This is the stain on our soul and democracy
A land of the free? No, it’s not. It’s hypocrisy
To subjugate, dehumanise a race, call ’em property
And say that we are powerless to stop it. Can you not foresee?

Ultimately, though, the song was cut. “No one knew what to do about it, and [the founding fathers] all kicked it down the field,” Miranda explained to Billboard in July 2015. “And while, yeah, Hamilton was anti-slavery and never owned slaves, between choosing his financial plan and going all in on opposition to slavery, he chose his financial plan. So it was tough to justify keeping that rap battle in the show, because none of them did enough.”

***

In March 2016, Lin-Manuel Miranda returned to the White House. This time, one of the numbers he performed was a duet from the musical called “One Last Time”, sung with the original cast member Christopher Jackson playing George Washington. After Alexander Hamilton tells the first US president that two of his cabinet have resigned to run against him, Washington announces that he will step down to leave the field open.

It is the political heart of the play’s myth-making, comparable to Nelson Mandela leaving Robben Island. The decorated Virginian veteran was the only man who could unite the fractious revolutionaries after they defeated the British. Washington could have become dictator for life; instead, he chose to create a true democracy. “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on./It outlives me when I’m gone.”

For a nation just beginning to think that Trump could really, actually become its president, seeing the incumbent acknowledge that his time was nearly over was a powerful moment. For Obama watching it in the audience, it must have felt like his narrative had come full circle.

Towards the end of the song, Hamilton begins to read out the words of the farewell address he has written, and Washington joins in, singing over the top of them. It was a technique cribbed from Will.i.am’s 2008 Obama campaign video, in which musicians and actors sing and speak along to the candidate’s “Yes, we can” speech.

In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama had written, “I learnt to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.”

This was the promise of his presidency: that there was not a black America or a white America, a liberal America or a conservative America, but, as he said in his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, “a United States of America”. The man who followed him clearly thinks no such thing, but nonetheless the nation must learn to move on.

In his farewell address in January 2017, Obama returned to the “Yes, we can” speech, using its words as the final statement on his presidency:

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: yes, we can. Yes, we did.

For the playwright JT Rogers, this is the true triumph of Hamilton – giving today’s multiracial America a founding myth in which minorities have as much right to be there as Wasps. It is political “in the sense of reclaiming the polis” – the body of citizens who make up a country. “The little village we live in outside the city, everyone in the middle school knows the score verbatim,” Rogers adds. “They recite it endlessly and at length, like Homer.”

“Hamilton” opens at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London on 6 December. For details visit: hamiltonthemusical.co.uk

Who’s who in Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Born around 1756 in the Caribbean, Hamilton came to the US mainland and fought in the American Revolutionary War, becoming chief staff aide to George Washington. Afterwards, he served as his treasury secretary, established a national bank and founded the coastguard and the New York Post. He died in a duel in 1804.

Aaron Burr

A soldier, lawyer and the US vice-president under Thomas Jefferson, Burr was born in 1756 and orphaned young. In 1782, he married an older widow and educated their daughter, Theodosia, in a strikingly liberal way. The duel with Hamilton ended his political career.

Maria Reynolds

As a 23-year-old, she had an affair with Hamilton, who was a decade older. When confronted over his payments to her husband, Hamilton confessed to the relationship in The Reynolds Pamphlet.

Thomas Jefferson

Born and educated in Virginia, Jefferson became America’s minister in France in 1785 and later secretary of state. Associated with the Democratic Republicans (the rivals to Hamilton’s Federalist Party) and a proponent of states’ rights.

George Washington

The commander-in-chief of the continental army during America’s war with the British, he later became the country’s first president. He always stayed non-partisan and did not join a party. His retirement after two presidential terms established a tradition.

Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

The daughter of General (later Senator) Philip Schuyler, and part of an influential New York dynasty – something that might have influenced Hamilton’s desire to marry her in 1780. They had eight children together, with the eldest, Philip, dying in a duel two years before his father.

Angelica Schuyler Church

Eliza’s elder sister, who married a British MP called John Church. She once wrote to her sister about Hamilton, “If you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while.” 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

Clockwise from top left: Moonlight, Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water
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The hand that feeds: how food scenes became the home of intimacy, sex and power in film

While food in general has been a big part of film over the past two years, it’s feeding scenes that stand out: from Phantom Thread’s BDSM omelette to Moonlight’s diner meal.

When was the last time somebody fed you? Not the last time your friend invited you round for dinner, or your partner cooked something delicious and romantic that you ate together. Not the last time you went to a nice restaurant and your date scooped a forkful of their meal into your mouth. When was the last time someone lived to serve your appetite, and your appetite alone?

Being fed is something that happens to people in an infantilised state. It suggests vulnerability. In this way, it is deeply, sometimes overly, intimate. When one person is eating and another isn’t – particularly in a sit-down, food-focused setting – traditional social dynamics become imbalanced, like being stark naked next to someone fully clothed, or a singer performing for an audience of one. As such, being fed can sit on a knife-edge of power dynamics: sometimes maternally nourishing, sometimes romantically intimate, sometimes exposing and uncomfortable. As a visual expression of the complexities of relationships, and with our need for food so often functioning as a metaphor for emotional needs and sexual desire, feeding scenes are particularly cinematic.

In fact, they are some of cinema’s most memorable: from Snow White accepting the evil witch’s apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the much-parodied food-as-foreplay sequence in 9 Weeks. I think of the sandwiches eaten early on in Psycho. When Marion arrives at the Bates Hotel, Norman Bates asks her, “Will you have supper here?” relaxing her by insisting “I was just about to, myself…” But once the sandwiches are prepared, Bates doesn’t eat. “It’s all for you. I’m not hungry. Please go ahead,” he insists. Marion, forced to eat alone, nibbles uncomfortably, and Bates watches closely. “You eat like a bird”, he says, comparing her to the stuffed birds dotted all around the room. It’s our first hint – along with his off-screen mother’s disembodied ranting about Mary “appeasing her ugly appetite with my food – and my son!” – that something is deeply wrong, as the proper dynamics of a meal are disturbed, and food openly discussed as a sexual metaphor.

While food in general has been a big part of film and film discussions over the past couple of years – from teenage girls snacking on un-consecrated wafers in Lady Bird to Get Out’s fruit loops and milk eaten (crucially, psychopathically) separately – it’s feeding scenes that stand out: from Phantom Thread’s BDSM omelette to Moonlight’s diner meal.

Perhaps no recent film privileges the role of food in relationships as highly as Moonlight (2016), which follows the coming-of-age of a gay black boy in Miami, Florida. “When it comes to food and film, its Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight that paints food, and feeding, the most vibrantly,” Ruby Tandoh writes in her book Eat Up, in a section on the ways in which food functions as a language of caring. “The food is rich and exquisite and larger than life, but it’s not really the contents of the plate that counts. What matters, in each of these scenes, is that the meal sits there on the table between Chiron and the people who love him – a symbol of the most nurturing kind of love.” Moonlight explores the growing up of Chiron, in three acts (child, teenager and adult), and each of these acts contains at least one key scene in which Chiron is fed.

In an early scene, young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is sat in a plasticy diner in front of Juan, a stranger who has taken it upon himself to look after neglected Chiron. Juan sits casually, a milkshake in hand, but with no food for himself, while Chiron eats his fries with a fork, quickly and silently.

“You not gonna tell me what your name is?” Juan says. When Chiron makes no attempt to reply, Juan pulls the tray out of his reach. Chrion looks down and shuffles back into his seat, still sulkily silent. Juan laughs. “Oh, man, you know I wouldn’t do you like that. Anyway, I apologize, alright? I’m just trying to get you to say something.”

After a short car ride, we are at home with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa. Juan and Teresa have no plates before them, but are both watching Chiron silently make his way through a plate of chicken. “You don’t talk much but you damn sure can eat,” Juan laughs. “That’s alright, baby. You ain’t got to talk till you get good and ready,” says Teresa. Finally, he speaks. “My name’s Chiron.” Even at this early stage in the film, the relationship between emotional and physical nourishment is clear, as food seen as a gateway to trust and familiarity.

When Chiron is older, he still relies on Teresa for this nourishment. In the film’s second act, Theresa tries to joke with a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as he eats (again, she herself does not), but Chiron, anxious and sullen, doesn’t bite, instead looking down at his plate. Theresa gently, lovingly insists he sit up and speak. “Stop putting your head down in my house. You know my rule, it’s all love and all pride in this house. You feel me? I can’t hear you. Do you feel me?”

These dynamics reappear in Chiron’s romantic relationship as a grown man. Now muscular and masculine but still shy and reserved, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) meets up with Kevin (André Holland), the object of his childhood affections, in the diner he runs. This diner scene, for many the iconic image of the film, is stretched out until it twitches with sexual tension, full of long silences and extended eye contact, running at an almost painfully long fifteen minutes. “You ain’t changed one damn bit,” Kevin observes. “You still can’t say more than three words at a time, huh?” Without missing a beat, Chiron speaks. “You said you was gonna cook for me. I know how to say that.”

We watch Kevin prepare the chef’s special with skill and care. Kevin brings it over to Chiron in a window booth, insists they share a bottle of wine, and attentively watches him eat his meal. When Chiron drops a bit on the table, and eats it with his fingers, popping it in his mouth, Kevin laughs. “I saw that, I saw that!” When Chiron is reluctant to share more personal details of his life, Kevin refuses to let it slide. “I’ve been back there in that kitchen, man, and cooked for your ass and everything. Hey, these grandma’s rules, man. You know the deal: your ass eat, your ass speak.”

Kevin’s joking about “grandma’s rules” points towards the larger significance of Moonlight’s meals: food is the tool that allows Kevin, Theresa, and Juan to enter Chiron’s life intimately, in both parental and romantic roles. For someone like Chiron – lonely, neglected, whose appetites and needs don’t take centre stage in his own childhood home – meals like this become the times where he is most vulnerable, and most open to love.

Parallels have been drawn between Moonlight and Sean Baker’s exploration of impoverished childhood The Florida Project (2017), even by Barry Jenkins himself. Moonee, The Florida Project’s central character, is, like Chiron, the child of a single mother in desperate circumstances (they live in a $38 a night motel called The Magic Castle, near Florida’s Disney World). But Moonee’s mother Halley is more caring, and present, and is at her most nurturing when feeding her child.

In one scene, we watch from Halley’s perspective as Moonee eats her weight in food at an all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast buffet Halley has sneaked them into. Moonee wolfs down bacon and fruit and pastries, and drinks a huge glass of orange juice in a single gulp. She is thrilled: “I wish I had a bigger stomach – like I was pregnant! I could fit food in there... We’ve gotta come here again. This is the life man! Better than a cruise!” The whole scene is a performance: Halley pretends to be a normal hotel guest on holiday with her child, Moonee in turn plays up her enjoyment for her mother. But it’s a performance that allows Halley and Moonee to have a loving, normal mother-daughter relationship, even if it’s short-lived. Halley simply watches her overexcited daughter quietly, smiling beatifically. As her daughter is at her most effusive and childlike, delighting in life’s simple pleasures, Halley is at her most maternal.

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016) can also be compared to Moonlight: here is a colder imagining of queer love in a diner. Lonely, isolated Montanan ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) falls for a young lawyer, Beth (Kristen Stewart) when she accidentally walks into her law class. After class, Jamie offers to take Beth to a diner. Over three scenes in that diner, Reichardt explores Jamie’s unreciprocated interest in Beth: in each, Beth eats while Jamie watches eagerly, ordering no food for herself.

In the first, Beth eats a sad-looking burger and complains about the long journey ahead of her. In the second, she eats a bowl of soup, while Jamie, again, only watches. Beth asks Jamie, businesslike, “Do you happen to know anyone in town who could teach my class?” Jamie chuckles sheepishly and says, “I don’t know anyone at all.” It’s overly intimate – Jamie wants Beth to ask about her loneliness. Her soft smile is the one of someone being examined by a new lover. Beth looks at her soup and asks Jamie vaguely about her job working with horses. Jamie responds with childhood anecdotes about her and her brothers sneaking out at night to ride wild horses, smiling that same embarrassed smile.

The third and final time the two arrive at the diner, it’s on horseback. Emboldened by the mere mention of her horses in their last conversation, when Beth agrees to share a ride to the diner, Jamie surprises her by bringing out her horse. The two ride the horse in silence. In the diner, biting into a grilled cheese, Beth offers Jamie some of her fries. Jamie, as ever, declines to eat, but stares unbreakingly at Beth, asking her a question that picks up on the last throwaway comment Beth made the last time they were at the diner: clearly, she’s been running that conversation over in her mind, thinking of something to ask her. It’s painful to watch such undivided, unreciprocated attentions, and Jamie’s misreading of the scene leads to an awkward declaration of feeling later in the film.

7,000 miles away, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017) too explores queer desire in an isolated, rural setting. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a closeted Yorkshire farm worker with a drinking problem, used to denying himself life’s pleasures. The arrival of stunningly handsome Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) catches Johnny off-guard.

The first time they eat together, Johnny tears into a pot of instant noodles without putting a flavour packet in; Gheorghe empties his packet into his noodles quietly and slowly. They are silent and avoid eye contact. The second time, it’s early, the morning after their first sexual encounter. Gheorghe watches silently as Johnny forks noodles into his mouth. “What?” he asks, uncomfortable. “I’m starving, me.” The third time, after watching Gheorghe begin to pour his flavour packet into his noodles, Johnny holds his own cup towards him. Gheorghe shares his packet. Again, Gheorghe watches Johnny eat. Eventually Johnny is too uncomfortable under his gaze, and finishes his noodles inside, alone. But later, as their relationship develops, we see Gheorghe cook for Johnny, even tasting it and salting his food for him, and they begin to actually enjoy food together.

Shared pleasure in food as a form of romance pops up again In Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), set in rural Italy in 1983. Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) fall in love around the breakfast table, amongst fragrant peach trees. During their first breakfast together, Oliver begins by helping himself to an egg. He taps it with his teaspoon so violently he smashes the whole egg into a runny mess of yolk and bits of shell. The maid takes it away, he takes a second, and breaks into it with a little more restraint. Elio is eating a peach, chewing on it as his parents and Oliver chat about the fruit trees. Oliver begins hurriedly eating his egg, making appreciative noises, dripping liquid yolk all over the table, and is soon offered another. “No, no, no I know myself too well – if I have a second I’m just gonna have a third, and then a fourth, and you’re just gonna have to roll me out of here. Delicious.” Elio pauses from his chewing to watch, intently.

The next time we see Oliver eat an egg, it’s in close-up, with ridiculous squelching noises. Though Guadagnino has insisted there is nothing sexual about this moment, only Epicurean, (even insisting in his defence “We didn’t do a close-up of that”, but I beg to differ – see above), the dialogue during the scene at least links Oliver’s egg eating to sex. “We almost had sex last night,” Elio says to his father, while Oliver eats. Then adds, “Marcia and me.” Of course, it is peaches that are the film’s most sexualised food. And, as Dan Q Dao writes in Munchies, the original novel contains an even more explicit version of the scene, as Oliver eats a peach Elio has had sex with, while Elio watches.

Call Me By Your Name is not the only film this year offering audiences a sexy egg. Eggs are more deliberately sexualised in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), set in Baltimore in 1962. Every morning, cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins) masturbates in the bath in the time it takes her to boil two eggs to take to work. Later, when she first meets the fish-man creature the laboratory she cleans is experimenting on, she feeds him the very same eggs – which he devours with visible pleasure. Is this human feeding animal, mother feeding child, or lover feeding lover? Eggs bond them – “egg” is the first word she teaches him in sign language, and the eggs she brings him every day soon become tokens of love, as Elisa lines them up on the edge of his tank, making eyes at him.

In the film’s most unambiguous exploration of Elisa’s feelings for the amphibian man, the two sit at opposite ends of a long table, while the creature eats an entire plate of boiled eggs. As Elisa watches him eat, she sings along with the song on the radio, and the scene melts into an old Hollywood fantasy, where Elisa swirls around a stage with the creature in her arms. We cut back to the dinner table: the creature is studiously peeling his eggs, oblivious. When Elisa feeds the amphibian man, it both brings them closer together, and serves to emphasise the gulf between them in their experiences of the world.

In all these films, the relationship between food and sex is romantic, pleasant, or at least fairly safe. But in Julia Ducournau’s French film Raw (2016), food and sex are dangerously, violently linked. During an initiation ceremony at her second day of veterinary school, vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) is forced to eat raw rabbit’s kidneys.

It brings her out in a bright red rash – and sees her develop an insatiable craving for raw meat, sex, and even human flesh. Slowly but surely, Justine starts eating other people. As the film goes on, her primal, cannibalistic desire becomes indistinguishable from lust.

Food is dangerous, too, in Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled .When wounded soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) ends up at all-female boarding school in Civil War-era Virginia, his presence is an unwanted, but nevertheless thrilling. Three dinner scenes between teachers Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) with their five pupils explore the tensions he brings into the home. In the first, the women mediate on the lessons his arrival could teach them. In the second, they are joined by the Corporal himself, each of the girls taking their moment to try and impress him. They take the odd bite of their meal, but their attentions are focused on McBurney, who is forced into a performative tummy-rubbing appreciation: “This is the finest meal I can remember”.

The third comes after McBurney has threatened, at gunpoint, to murder the women. They decide to protect themselves and dispose of him by feeding him a poison version of his favourite mushroom dish. “Corporal, we’d like to let you know that we harbor no ill feelings, and made this meal in commemoration of your journey ahead,” Miss Martha insists. As the mushrooms are passed to the Corporal, none of the girls help themselves. As he piles his plate high, the girls stare on and neglect their own plates. Coppola’s stage directions repeatedly emphasise how the women keep their gazes fixed on McBurney: “All eyes are on him”; Jane, Emily and Amy “stare”; “They all watch as McBurney eats up the mushrooms”; “The girls watch him”; “The united women calmly watch”. Of course, unbeknownst to McBurney, the intensity of their undivided attention and their own refusal to eat the mushrooms is a sign that something deeply suspicious is happening.

Ultimately, any intimate act is so because it holds a level of risk, and requires an element of trust. Here, the vague danger that comes with accepting food from another person is taken to its logical conclusion. Within a few seconds of eating, McBurney lies dead on the floor.

Strangely, The Beguiled is not the only film of 2017 featuring a woman feeding a threatening man poison mushrooms to regain control. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the dining table at 1950s London dressmakers the House of Woodcock is as fraught as that of a Civil War boarding school. Phantom Thread explores the complexities of hunger and sexual desire perhaps more explicitly than any other film this year: at the New Yorker, Helen Rosner calls in “one of the great food movies in recent memory”. Difficult, self-mythologizing 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock has a complex relationship with his work, alternating between discipline and spontaneity, self-denial and self-expression. His relationship with food oscillates, too: sometimes it is one of control and deprivation, other times an ecstatic binge. When he is happy, inspired, or aroused, Woodcock eats with relish.

When he first meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), she is a waitress in a seaside café – from her, Reynolds orders an endless breakfast: “A Welsh rarebit. With a poached egg on top – not too runny. Bacon. Scones. Butter. Cream. Jam – not strawberry. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea. And some sausages.” She delivers it to him, along with a note: “To the hungry boy.” Food remains the sire of their flirtation and their battleground.

As Reynolds’ relationship with Alma develops, her relaxed approach to food enrages him. She butters her toast too loudly, slurps her cereal obscenely. She violates the sanctity of his breakfast by eating enthusiastically. “If breakfast isn’t right,” Reynold’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) explains, “it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” When Alma brings him tea in the afternoon, he balks. “No, Alma, what are you doing? Don’t put the tray on the table, please. Just take it off. I didn’t ask for tea.” When she replies that the tea is going out, he snaps, “The interruption is staying right here with me.” When Alma rejects the conventions of the household to prepare a surprise dinner for Reynolds, he makes no attempt to conceal his disdain: “As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. And knowing this, you’ve prepared the asparagus with butter. Now, I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now, I’m just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you’ve prepared it.” Perhaps their worst argument ensues.

In these moments, Alma is a nuisance, or worse, a threat to the stability and order or the House of Woodcock, forever interrupting Reynolds with inconvenient reminders of troublesome human desires: food, sex, emotional intimacy. But when Woodcock is invigorated, inspired, and happy to give in to his wants, both Alma and food become much more enticing prospects. ”Do we have porridge?” he says brightly to his cook one morning. “Do we have cream? Thick cream? That’s what I’d like. Oh, Alma, would you like some porridge?”

Ultimately, Reynolds fluctuates between desiring power and control, and desiring its opposite. Understanding this, Alma is able to slowly, carefully, become the dominant party. Of course, it’s food – and feeding – that enables her to do this. The film’s final scenes shows Alma preparing a poisoned mushroom omelette for Reynolds: that will force him back into a vulnerable, infantilised, pathetic state, and put her in the position of controlling caregiver. “I want you flat on your back,” Alma whispers, “helpless, tender, open, with only me to help.” Reynolds smiles. It’s a state he desires sexually, emotionally and physically as the film’s insistent final words make unavoidably clear. “I’m getting hungry,” Reynolds says. We cut to black.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world