Before Hamilton took the world by storm, Lin Manuel Miranda’s show-stopping groundbreaking musical was In The Heights. It tells the story about Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner, and his block, Washington Heights, a majority Latino neighborhood in NYC. The original Broadway show ran in 2008 and now in 2021, the film adaptation has graced the big (and small) screen.
I had been anticipating this film for years. I was in a state of absolute bliss seeing it in theaters a few weeks ago. The musical numbers came to life with a fervor that had me squirming in my seat. I had to stop myself from singing every word aloud. Musicals have a feeling of euphoria that is unlike any other genre. In The Heights gave me that feeling for hours after I had left the theater. Like with any movie, though, this film has many flaws, both within and around its production.
No development for Benny
As with any Broadway adaptation, the film makes some changes to the story. Most of the changes made were in disservice to the film’s Black and older female characters. One major change is the storyline of Kevin no longer having an issue with Benny not being a Latino. On my first viewing, I thought, well okay, I can see why they would drop that. We don’t need any more Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner plot threads in 2021. But after seeing the criticism due to the lack of Afro-Latinos and hearing the comments made by the cast and crew (more on that soon), it feels almost like they just didn’t want to talk about the anti-Blackness within the Latino community. And yes, it is specifically anti-Blackness because Benny is a Black man in the film. Had he been a white man, it would be a different story.
The diminishing of matriarchs
In the opening song of the film, you notice that Camila, Nina’s mother, is no longer in the story. The decision to turn her into the classic dead mom trope is exhausting, to say the least. Not only is it a trope that should have died long ago, but the level-headedness that Camila adds in the original work is needed. She’s the voice of reason in the conflict between Nina and her father Kevin and her song “Enough” illustrates that beautifully.
The last and most upsetting change is the watering down of Abuela Claudia’s narrative. Claudia is the heart and soul of the show. In the original, Claudia wins the lottery and tells Usnavi about it in a song called Hundreds of Stories. After her death, Nina sings a song called Everything I Know, talking about Claudia’s imprint and legacy on Washington Heights. Cutting both of these songs takes away so much of Claudia’s characterization. It gives her incredible solo Paciencia y Fe less weight as well, especially since they put it right before she dies in the film and not halfway through act 1. And she dies during the blackout, instead of after Carnaval del Barrio. It feels rushed and is not as impactful because of how they chose to arrange the story.
Lack of Afro-Latinos in an Afro-Latin community
The film has been met with a wave of criticism for its lack of Afro-Latino lead characters. In an interview for The Root, Felice León, an Afro-Latina woman herself, asked some of the cast and the director about this particular issue. Melissa Barerra, who plays Vanessa in the film, said that “they were looking for just the right people for the roles.” This tired, terrible rhetoric is something that people of color have been hearing for years from white producers, white casting directors, white actors, etc. And it’s even more distasteful here because the film is about Washington Heights. Washington Heights is a largely Dominican neighborhood with many more Afro-Latinos than the film shows. So, Afro-Latinos weren’t the best people to portray Afro-Latinos in an Afro-Latin community? Okay. But don’t worry, director Jon M. Chu made sure to remind us about the background dancers.
Actually casting an Afro-Latina
“Okay, everyone keeps saying that there needed to be more Afro-Latinos in speaking roles, so who would it have been?” I’m glad you asked. Vanessa is the perfect role for an Afro-Latina to play and I’ll tell you why. A large part of Vanessa’s character is that she is the It Girl of Washington Heights. She’s gorgeous, loved, and courted by all. Mainstream media does not portray darker-skinned women as desirable and sought after. When it does, it’s often done in a fetishizing and dehumanizing light. It would have done a lot more for visibility had Vanessa been played by a darker-skinned Afro-Latina. It would’ve allowed darker-skinned women to see themselves in a light of adoration.
Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa, arguably the whitest person in the main cast. Her recent comments simply make her look like a woman who can’t see her own position of privilege. Director Jon M. Chu’s history of white-washed casting makes her casting look intentional, whether they were conscious of it or not. Having Vanessa be played by someone like Melissa only works to reinforce the idea that whiteness is the pinnacle of beauty, that whiteness is what we as women should be striving for and if we are not that, we are less than somehow.
Loving something flawed
It’s important that we as consumers understand how to critically consume. There are many issues with this film, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it. In The Heights is a visually stunning whirlwind of a film. The performances are captivating, the fresh feeling of summer is constant, and the culture is alive and thriving. I had so much fun watching this film and it’s probably going to be one of my favorites of the year. However, the conversations that have arisen are important and necessary. Even within nonwhite communities, there is work to be done to understand and combat the erasure of Black and darker-skinned people of color in these communities. I suggest reading On “In the Heights,” Imagination, and When “Latinidad” Falls Apart by Alan Pelaez Lopez as it talks about this in a much more in-depth fashion.