In The Heights is the nostalgic dream of a Washington Heights not everyone experienced. When you sit and feel the clave ping ping ping – pingping you feel the joy in your heart that this sound even made it to such a big screen. The hip movements and curly dark hair spinning on the television resembles the ones you recognize, but as the sun shines over their open arms and bright red lipstick smiles you realize you don’t really know what street they are standing on. For all the warm tender feelings In The Heights gives, there are missing shades, streets and “suenitos” deferred.
The film begins with a classic overture (I just want to preface this review comes from someone who grew up on musicals – but not a fan of musicals). The song bounces off the padded recording studio chanting “In The Heights!” I roll my eyes and then settle in – to give it a fighting chance. I mentioned I don’t like musicals so the first hurdle to jump over is the constant singing, but that is a personal preference so it’s easy to stay in the race. Then, the next is the story structure. Our main character Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) let’s us know he runs a bodega and has dreams of opening up his father’s store back in The Dominican Republic. There is heavy influence on the “suenito” or little dream. It started to sound very Disney, but then I remembered it’s a Broadway musical and chalk that up to musical fare. The story unfortunately does not get any further depth, instead it’s a myriad of interlocking experiences of residents of “The Heights.” One girl is returning from college, another is trying to run away from her block and a kid trying to find his place in the world. You don’t necessarily understand either of their suenitos because they aren’t as clearly defined as Usnavi’s and for some reason – we’re counting down to a black out. (Scratching my head.) So to keep the analogy going, it tripped on that hurdle.
Dónde Está Washin-ton Haits?
I was stuck on the fact that I couldn’t figure out where the hell in The Heights they were supposed to be. Now, I am not a born and raised New Yorker, but I’ve lived in the Bronx for over 15 years now, and I recognize Riverdale when I see it! Jokes aside, my experience with The Heights is visiting close friends (now my chosen family) in their buildings where their cousin lived across the street, and bachata played on the streets in between the reggaetón and the tumbao tumbao tumbao bumping. Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) listened to her block and heard birds and quiet shouts with muffled horns. I was like, “you near Columbia University or something?” I realized my personal experience with The Heights is off the A-train and this was the 1-train. If you know New York…what a difference a block can make! Once I got my bearings I was able to see what picture of the heights the creators were making. (I say the creators because it’s not all Lin-Manuel Miranda. There is A LOT that goes into making a movie, and so many hands touched and signed off on this film.)
So where is the block? It seems to be specifically the area around Highbridge Park – ok got it. What I saw is someone who grew up in The Heights trying to capture the pride and feeling of home they have stepping on the block and the warmth that peeks its head through on a good day. The essence of Washington Heights was sprinkled onto the movie set and musical body of this film. Did I feel things – yes of course! The same way I felt things in Bohemian Rhapsody, the same way I felt things in the Selena series on Netflix. This is someone’s dream about their block. It’s all the warm memories even if they are painful, but it’s not reality, and, honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be. Did I hope it would hit on a deeper, realer Washington Heights – of course.
Es Como Un Poema
The metaphors come next. A cab service owner (Kevin Rosario, the character Nina’s father, played by the incomparable Jimmy Smitts) who needs to sell his building to pay for his daughter’s tuition to Stanford. The dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) who is not speaking rapid fire Spanish into the radio all in one breath confuses me. Again, I may be a transplant but 15 years of listening to dispatchers – none of them sounded the way Corey Hawkins spit into that mic. Okay I’ll give it to creative license on that one. We have the hair salon as the gossip hub and the three chorus ladies Daphne Rubin Vega as Daniela the beauty shop owner, Stephaine Beatriz and Dascha Polanco as Carla and Cuca. All with the gift of gab and attitude – pretty accurate but obviously exaggerated. Nina is the college girl dealing with cultural discrimination at school – as a Latine woman of Afro-Panameña descent, I’m gonna say they just scratched the surface on the topic but pretty damn accurate. But backing down from schooling someone at a white institution HELL NO! At least I know I didn’t let that slide. The struggle and feeling of being uncomfortable as the only one in class is well executed in Nina’s character.
All the while Abuela (Olga Merediz) is the heart of the neighborhood and Usnavi’s home. This is one of the most accurate parts of the film. The abuela who is everyone’s abuela. She cares for the children whose parents are still in DR. She cooks every night as if there will be 20 people over, because there probably will be. She was so sweet, had a killer voice, and her song in the train as her finale was honestly well shot, loved the choreography and fantastic set. This is, sadly, where we saw the darkest featured actors in the whole film.
The small glimpses of gentrification with the expensive dry cleaners, and the salon moving to Grand Concourse in The Bronx. The idea that dreams are small when you’re in The Heights but big to those who hold them. People who try to run away from their home for fear of not achieving those dreams, are all real things. When you make them into a commercial product it loses some authenticity and of course – it’s gonna hurt a little bit. It stung for that fact that some people will take this for face value. The kids playing in hydrants, winning the lottery, gossiping at the hair salon. It’s all fun and games, and you love to see Black and Brown joy, but the commodification always makes it taste different. I don’t want In The Heights to be the teaching tool in white suburban schools about disenfranchised people. (Reasons why we need Critical Race Theory in schools).
I know it’s difficult to please everyone (or anyone for that matter), so I’m not holding In The Heights to an unreasonable standard as a “savior” of Latine culture – but no bachata?? How Sway??
The moment everyone is talking about. The light washing of Washington Heights and the unnecessary defense of it (by some). The entire main cast (outside of Corey Hawkins as Benny – who… it’s unclear if he is playing an Afrolatine character or a Black man from the heights, either way it was nice to see it) – aside from Benny all lead actors were light and fair skinned individuals. My issue was even the darker skinned Afrolatine woman of the bunch Nina Rosario didn’t have as much focus as the character Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). It felt as though Vanessa had a lot more screen time as the main love interest. In the story, Nina has a long relationship with Benny, and this tale is a much more nuanced and interesting love story.
We spend a decent amount of time on Vanessa and Usnavi, but to tell the truth I don’t even understand why they like each other. We see more scenes of Usnavi trying to kick it to Vanessa and their relationship arc; however, Nina’s arc and story feel more grounded. I don’t really know what the Vanessa character wants for her life. I know she wants to do fashion. You never learn if she ultimately wants to open a clothing store, her own brand, or even go to fashion school – just that The Heights is really her true inspiration – even though she’s fighting to leave. The whole film is under scrutiny because of the age-old conversation on colorism. I say “age old” not to water down the omission of dark-skinned leads but out of pure exhaustion.
First off, this does not take away from the stellar performances from this talented cast. The dancers, chorus members, co-stars, and featured actors put their heart and soul into every moment of this movie. You can see it in their glowing faces, beaming smiles, and every step they take on that set. I appreciated the range in shapes, sizes, and tone of the chorus. Some of which were friends of mine! Congratulations on landing a role, doing the hard work, and making your sueno a reality. I say this all with love, because Hollywood needs to do better. Tinseltown is a powerful drug, and sometimes the ones on our side get to the top and close the door behind them. This is about those who need to remember why we work hard.
Recently, in a press interview with Director Jon M. Chu (Director, Crazy Rich Asians) and the main cast, The Root’s Felice León asked what needed to be asked. Why so light? If this is about Washington Heights, why were no dark skinned actors chosen in lead roles? The response was skin deep. No one properly knew how to address the question – almost like no one had even thought about it. Actress Leslie Grace, bless her heart, came with a response that showed at least concern for the fact that her darker skinned siblings could not have lead roles. Others well…tried to say the best fit actors got the right roles.
Therein lies the problem, I believe, this actor did not reflect on before speaking. We have already heard that one. Over and over again, that is the main retort. Well they just picked the right actors for the roles. This cannot be the answer anymore. The issue is casting rooms can often be subject to unconscious and conscious racism. The right person for the role isn’t just about talent to someone looking to sell a film. The right person has historically been light or white passing and before that – actually white people! The fact that you mentioned there were a number of darker skinned Latine women in the room means they made a conscious decision to pass on a large group of also very talented actors. They were in the room WITH you for a reason, they were also a good fit for the part, and they could have gotten it in a second.
The other issue lies for me with the constant response of I can’t wait to see what comes out of this. Or…When darker skinned Latine people create their own work. I’m gonna stop you right there. Well goddam – someone say yes to our shit! We need someone to say yes, and, at this rate, even our own people are not saying yes to us. And the idea that In The Heights will be the thing to open doors for darker skinned Afro-Latine work….well is that what West Side Story did? This is also no longer acceptable. We are now gatekeepers. We need to stop keeping each other away from the gate, and let us the fruck in.
When Leon from The Root said why were there no Afro-Panamanians, that was the first time I audibly hollered in pride. That’s my people! As an actress, writer, and producer who needs someone to say yes – It did hurt to know people of my even cinnamon complexion and darker are still struggling to make it into lead roles of major motion pictures – of our own movies no less! Lin Manuel Miranda’s apology hit all the spots, addressed all the points, and I appreciate that. We need to accelerate and expand our ideas of inclusion. Lin Manuel Miranda, let’s hire a dark skinned Latine person to direct, to write, to cast. Make the initiative to change the narrative, I’m hoping this time’s a charm.
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I loved every minute of reading this article and you have now convinced me that I can still watch it even though I was conflicted upon hearing the news that the representation STILL did not hit the mark. I absolutely loved the Broadway version. I wouldn’t have expected the movie version to go any deeper story wise, it is based off a musical after all but they had an opportunity to be truly great here so I’m a little disappointed.