(Lainey: please note, this is the first of two back-to-back posts about In The Heights and the colourism conversation that’s been happening about representation in the film. Cody will start and Violeta’s perspective will follow.)
The highly anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, In The Heights, hasn’t received the warmest welcome since its release last weekend as the movie has been overshadowed by conversations about how the film is perpetuating colourism by largely relegating Black Latinx performers to the background.
The discourse online was really sparked by The Root’s interview with director Jon M. Chu, where he responded to the criticism that the majority of the principal roles are filled by light-skinned or white-passing Latinx actors. He admits it’s something they talked about and in the end tried to get “the people who were best for those roles”, but says it’s a good conversation to have. And that’s basically where his contribution to the conversation ended. At one point Jon did ask the producer from The Root if they noticed darker skinned and Black talent in the musical numbers. In her response to Jon, she explained how casting Black Latinx talent as background dancers or in roles with no lines isn’t groundbreaking.
What makes the lack of Afro-Latinx representation so aggravating to the community is that they were expecting to see themselves when they turned on this film. The movie is set in Washington Heights, an Upper Manhattan neighbourhood with a prominent population of Afro-Dominicans, Black Cubans, and darker-skinned Latinx people. So why doesn’t it look like Washington Heights? Lin-Manuel Miranda, who served as a producer on the film, told IndieWire that when casting, his mandate was, “It has to be people who look like they belong on 175th Street because that’s where we’re going to be.” Unfortunately it ended up being the lighter-skinned people he sees on 175th Street cast in the movie, while a lot of people living on that street feel unseen in a movie about their own neighbourhood. Some of the pain the Black Latinx fans are also dealing with comes from feeling excluded from the Latinx community once again. Historically Latinx people haven’t fully embraced their African roots and because of that some Afro-Latinx feel they’re treated as less than or made to “pick a side” because of their skin colour. So when this movie comes along that’s being billed as a love-letter to Latinx culture and they don’t see themselves, that’s reinforcing the colourism they’ve felt throughout their lives. In hearing these messages from the community, Lin-Manuel admitted they’d fallen short in a message posted to Twitter earlier this week.
“In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening. I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings… I promise to do better in my future projects…”
That’s exactly what I wanted to hear from him. He’s listening and committing to do better next time. This doesn’t take away from the work he’s done to uplift people of colour and specifically the Latinx community in mainstream media. If anything, he’s reinforced that he’s a great advocate. Nobody wants to tear down LMM, but I don’t think anybody’s beyond reproach. LMM won’t do better if he never knows better, so we’ve got to tell him. However, Rita Moreno certainly thought we were being too hard on Lin and the movie when she stopped by The Late Show on Tuesday and, without even being asked about the situation, defended In The Heights against colourism accusations.
She was giving very Afro-Latinx people need to wait their turn energy in my opinion and when she says “wait a while and leave it alone”, it reinforces colourism. Wait for how long? It’s always the fairest-skinned people who get to be the first ones to walk through the door and darker-skinned people have to wait until after or not at all, and that shouldn’t still be the case — especially when the film was supposed to be presenting a Black and brown neighbourhood . I think she wanted to defend her friend before she really understood the details of what was going on and she apologized about 24 hours after the interview aired. In a statement, she says, “I’m incredibly disappointed with myself… I was clearly dismissive of Black lives that matter in our Latin community.” And while Twitter was on the topic of In The Heights whitewashing Washington Heights, one user pointed out that Rita Moreno’s skin was actually darkened for the role of Anita in West Side Story, for which she won the Oscar. So for her to originally tell Colbert people should “wait a while” before criticizing is disappointing because she knows all too well that Hollywood always has an idea of what they think Latinx should look like on screen and if we don’t push back we’ll never see change.
These are necessary conversations but at the same time, they can take place without turning people away from wanting to see the movie because these critiques don’t mean it’s a horrible film nor do they render it unwatchable. I believe we do need to support In The Heights in order to get more films depicting the Latinx experience greenlit, and with more diversity in storytelling comes more diversity on screen.