Set amongst the modern challenges of gentrification and racial inequality, Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a bittersweet, vibrant homage to homecoming.
It may have taken a full decade to bring In The Heights to the big screen, but the timing of the arrival of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s latest hit production couldn’t be more perfect. Though it may have had a modest box office debut (taking home half the predicted ticket sales on its opening weekend), the buzz surrounding the feel-good production just keeps growing.
And not just because fans are enjoying it. In the days since the film’s general release in the US, the controversy surrounding the curious lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx actors in the main cast has re-ignited discussions about Hollywood’s tendency to exclusively spotlight light-skinned or white-passing Latinx people, painting vastly inaccurate pictures of an – in reality – wildly varied group made up of a number of ethnicities and hues.
A vibrant, inescapably uplifting production, adapted from the original stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Manuel-Miranda (who wrote the play’s music and lyrics), the musical is stunning in every sense of the word. With an almost fairytale-like opening, it follows the story of a bodega owner called Usnavi who’s torn between serving his community in an increasingly gentrified Washington Heights and returning to his paternal home of the Dominican Republic.
This struggle between what is home and what is worth leaving behind is mirrored in each of the characters’ experiences. As their community changes before their eyes over an uncomfortably hot summer, they navigate what it means to respect their parents’ dreams while forging entirely new ones for themselves.
The concept of community is particularly poignant in the shadow of the Trump presidency and increasingly aggressive racism around the world. In The Heights asks: if the neighbourhood you grew up in – or a new area that you made your own later in life – is on the verge of changing beyond recognition, then where do you belong? When decades-old businesses are being priced out by new, expensive ones, when hazy, idyllic memories of better days abroad won’t stop playing in your mind, then where is home?
Director Jon M Chu, best known for directing Crazy Rich Asians and fast becoming the go-to man for musicals (he’s also directing the upcoming screen adaptation of Wicked), transports audiences to a middle ground between fantasy and reality, with dreamy beach backdrops and – sparingly – charming special effects. While the film nods to the importance of home, heritage and tradition throughout, it makes sure to look forward: to the future, to new beginnings, and endless possibilities.
The blockbuster’s lead – the endlessly charming Anthony Ramos – sits comfortably in his role, offering an energetic, boyish-charm with the precision and vigour of a seasoned performer. This is in large part because Ramos is as seasoned as he appears. As well as performing in Hamilton, Ramos has made appearances in A Star Is Born (he plays Ramon, best friend to Lady Gaga’s character, Ally Maine), Spike Lee’s TV remake of She’s Gotta Have It and Will and Grace. And that’s excluding mention of his role in the next Transformers movie.
That’s not to say other members of the cast aren’t comparably talented. From supporting actors to hundreds of backup dancers, the cast’s skills are bone-chillingly good. There are flawless vocal performances from Corey Hawkins, who plays Usnavi’s best friend Benny, Leslie Grace (Nina) and Melissa Barrera (Vanessa) in particular.
There’s sharp and spirited dancing throughout, aided by the expert choreography of three-time Emmy-nominated Christopher Scott, known for his work on just about every US dance reality show there is. The chemistry is so strong and apparent between each and every member of the main cast, it almost feels like you’re a fly on the wall of an all-singing, all-dancing extended community.
Numbers like “96,000” are a visual and audio feast – like when Usnavi learns his bodega is carrying a lottery ticket worth $96,000 – with nods to hip-hop classics like Boogie Down Productions’ Stop The Violence. The euphonic chorus of dreams about what people would do with the winning ticket – from using the money to grapple with the injustice of anti-immigration policies to having enough to leave the “barrio” and escape Washington Heights altogether – are as moving as they are beautiful to watch.
Sixteen-year-old Gregory Diaz IV (Sonny) offers an impressive and pointed pool-thrashing rap about immigration, racism and gentrification, while Barrera’s piercing vocals soar above the cast. Filmed in a public swimming pool in much colder conditions than you’d think, what could have descended into busy, messy splashing turned out to be one of the most striking scenes of the entire film.
No performance was quite as moving, however, as Olga Merediz’s in contemporary ballet scene Paciencia y Fe (patience and faith). Reprising the role of Abuela Claudia (for which she won a Tony in the Broadway production of In The Heights), Merediz’s powerful, anguished singing makes the story of her life that much more captivating.
There’s palpable emotion in her voice as dancers dressed in 1940s Cuban garb twirl around her – she takes stock of her legacy: “Sharing double beds, trying to catch a break, struggling with English… Scrubbing the whole of the Upper East Side… The days into weeks, the weeks into years, and here I stayed”.
There are, however, a couple of clunky moments in the musical. The special effects in When The Sun Goes Down – characters Benny and Nina partake in a gravity-defying dance along the side of a building, a la Fred Astaire in You’re All The World To Me – are charming, but feel almost unnecessary in other parts of the film.
There’s also been some criticism surrounding the absence of speaking parts for dark-skinned Latinx people, which some members of the cast have clumsily addressed. And the one queer relationship in the film – between hair and beauty salon owner Daniela (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her colleague and girlfriend Carla (played by Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Beatriz – isn’t very apparent, save for one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the film.
Though dark-skinned Afro-Latinx families and Carla and Daniela are among some of the first people we see in the film, it would have been nice to see more ambitious decisions in terms of addressing colourism and queer representation.
In an interview for The Root with Afro-Cuban video journalist Felice León, director Chu and members of the cast were asked about colourism and relegating dark-skinned Afro-Latinx people to mostly dancing roles. It’s an issue that critics – namely those in the US who know or lived in the Washington Heights area – say risks being ignored altogether, given the on-the-surface diversity offered by In The Heights’ large musical numbers.
While Miranda and light-skinned Afro-Latinx actor Leslie Grace’s responses to the issue have been received as slightly more thoughtful, Chu’s response – as well as Melissa Barrera’s – were met with more frustration. When asked about the issues, Chu agrees that it’s a “fair conversation to have”, but fails to directly address the problem at hand. Barrera, who plays Vanessa, goes further, saying: “I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles.
For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent,” before adding that the Afro-Lantix dancers and extras in “big numbers” were considered opportunities to make up for the lack of range in skin tone.
It’s a shame that something that could have been easily implemented has cast a shadow on the film. But the fact that the issue hasn’t been swept aside as irrelevant – or the unfounded, embittered grumblings of Black Latinx people – is a good thing too. This is a debate that has long been left unaddressed in Hollywood – or at the very least, misrepresented.
For the most part, though, this is a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience with a lot of heart. Clichéd though it may be, the central message that home is truly where the heart is couldn’t be more relatable.
Images: Warner Bros