New York City, NY

‘In the Heights’ and the Debate on Representation

Gianna Baez

(NEW YORK, Ny)

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In the Heights, the film adaptation of the 2008 Broadway musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, written alongside Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by John M. Chu, is an homage to the predominantly Dominican neighborhood of upper Manhattan: Washington Heights. “I started writing ‘In the Heights’ because I didn’t see a way forward for myself as a Latino who wanted to be in musical theater. I didn’t see our stories being told so I wrote what was missing” Miranda told NBC News.

The events of three fateful summer days in Washington Heights unfold in flashbacks recounted by Usnavi – played by Hamilton actor Anthony Ramos – a young bodega owner from the Dominican Republic who dreams of one day returning to the Caribbean Island.

The first scene begins on a hot August day. Usnavi is opening up his bodega, located on the corner of 175th Street, as the cast and ensemble sing, rap, and dance their way through the Heights.

Usnavi:

Ya gotta just keep watchin'

You'll see the

Late nights,

You'll taste

Beans and rice

The syrups and

Shaved ice,

I ain't gonna

Say it twice.

So turn off the stage lights,

We're takin' a flight

To a couple of days

In the life of what it's like.

ALL:

En Washington Heights!

The big musical numbers continue throughout the film as the cast breakdance, salsa, and bachata their way through staples of the neighborhood like the George Washington Bridge, the 1 train, the colorful 191st tunnel, and Highbridge Park. But the turning point of the film occurs when all the (stage) lights go out. Inspired by the NYC-wide blackout of August 2003, the Washington Heights residents band together through a power outage that lasts 30+ hours. And ultimately, through witty lyrics and colorful cinematography, the film manages to showcase Washington Heights as a place of community, home, love, and light even in the darkest of times.

While the film received stellar critical reviews, including a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, some viewers took to Twitter, and other social media platforms, to voice their frustrations with the film’s colorism. The main cast featured Latinx actors like Leslie Grace – a Dominican-American Bronx native. However, many viewers still critiqued the lack of darker-skinned and Afro-Latinx actors in more prominent roles.

Hollywood has long valorized and highlighted fair-skinned Latinos over Afro-Latinos, often denying the latter roles that reflect their culture. It’s a limited and inaccurate representation of Latinos, who are diverse in culture and complexion. But what makes these casting choices particularly egregious is that the movie is set in the Heights, which is known as Little Dominican Republic,” said critic Concepción De León, in an interview with the NY Times.

Following the film’s premiere, Miranda quickly took to Twitter to apologize for the lack of inclusive casting.“I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy. In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short,” he tweeted.

Although the movie touches on issues like immigration, DACA, and gentrification, long-time residents of the Washington Heights/Inwood neighborhoods still expressed disappointment over the film’s lack of racial discussions more broadly. Some even brought up how the film’s erasure of Afro-Latinx cast members paralleled the erasure of darker-skinned Asians in Crazy Rich Asians, Chu’s previous block-buster film.

Amidst the critiques, many praised the film for bringing a diverse representation of the Latinx community to Hollywood. Miranda, while acknowledging the film’s pitfalls, expressed he was proud of the movie they made. But the pending critiques beg the question: is sole representation of marginalized communities enough?

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Hi there! I'm Gianna, a recent college grad living in NYC. Throughout my writing, I like to explore the intersection of storytelling and personal narratives with social justice issues. My stories focus on uplifting and amplifying BIPOC and other marginalized voices.

New York, NY
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