Upcoming biopic looks to put Jeremiah G. Hamilton back on the map.
There are really two sorts of biopics out there: those that lure us in with names that we are to some degree already familiar with – Snowden, Jackie, Lincoln, etc. – and those that (re)introduce us to figures and stories that have, for one reason or another, flown under the radar or largely faded from public consciousness, like last year’s Hidden Figures.
Movies shape our general view of the past in a big way, especially in dealing with anything that happened before photography and film really exploded in the 20th century. When it comes to portrayals of the pre-2oth century Black history, particularly in the U.S., the first word that would most likely come to mind is slavery. Films such as 12 Years a Slave are incredibly important for attempting to realistically portray the horrors of slavery that have been glossed over, ignored, or blatantly lied about (in extremely influential ways) throughout most of film history, in films ranging from D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind. However, due to their necessarily reprehensible content, such films are also incredibly painful. They can be brilliant films, as 12 Years a Slave indeed is, but they’re films that you’re glad to have watched rather than films that you enjoyed watching.
The thing is, though racism was rampant throughout the U.S. in the 19th century, even in states where slavery was not legal, the annals of history offer a number of narratives and fascinating figures in fields as wide-ranging as sports, arts, and business. One such figure whose story is now in the works to get a movie treatment is Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s first Black millionaire. The upcoming film, entitled Prince of Darkness, is set to be adapted by Steven Baigelman from Shane White’s 2015 biography Prince of Darkness: The Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire, which won the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Best Book Prize and the 2016 New York City Book Award. The Hollywood Reporter also reports that Don Cheadle has signed on to produce and star in the film as the eponymous millionaire.
Unlike the women of Hidden Figures, Hamilton built up quite a reputation in his lifetime, both on Wall Street and in the popular press, as well as a considerable fortune – the wealth he amassed by the time of his death in 1875, in today’s dollars, would be in the realm of $250 million. It has only been in the many decades since that Hamilton’s largely been forgotten. Reading this Atlantic article by Shane White, it’s quite difficult to imagine how such a thing happened, as Hamilton comes across as anything but forgettable. “A skilled and innovative financial manipulator,” he was definitely at least a little bit of a bastard, but also, like many people of highly questionable morals, a fascinating individual. He didn’t have many white admirers for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has ever taken an American History class, and black intellectuals of the time weren’t too fond of him either, as they saw his unabashed pursuit of material wealth as “crass and undignified,” yet somehow one can’t really imagine Hamilton losing too much sleep over it (in what was almost certainly a very luxurious bed).
Hamilton first made a name in New York for over-insuring ships which he then arranged to have sunk. He moved into real estate once the marine insurance industry caught on before finally shifting his focus to the stock market. When it came to the many obstacles thrown in his way, Hamilton’s personal philosophy was apparently more along the lines of punch back harder than rise above it: “When a legal official struck Hamilton with his cane, the broker swung back at him with a hunk of wood seized from a passing cart.” Hamilton was involved in over 50 court cases in his life (as both plaintiff and defendant), including once going “toe-to-toe” in court with Cornelius Vanderbilt (yes, the patriarch of the Vanderbilts – also known as “Commodore Vanderbilt”). One of Vanderbilt’s obituarists even gave Hamilton a shoutout as the “one man who ever fought the Commodore to the end.”
Needless to say, there’s a lot of potential here, and while Hamilton’s larger than life personality will certainly present a challenge, Cheadle’s got the acting chops to rise to the occasion. It’s early yet for excitement, as the chasm between potential and realized potential can be unfortunately large. That said, I know I’ll be keeping an eye out for this one.