A Timeless Story of Tradition, Hope and Belonging
Lin Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s 2021 film adaptation of In the Heights is an emotional rollercoaster filled with love, community, and most importantly, infectious music! The story follows two American Latinos: Usnavi (played by Anthony Ramos), an ambitious bodega owner with a dream to move back to the Dominican Republic for a better life, and Nina (played by Leslie Grace), a Stanford student struggling with her identity and the pressure to succeed. Taking place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, or the “Little Dominican Republic,” Miranda’s songs encapsulate the grit it takes to survive in a place that is so concentrated with tradition and culture, yet often underrepresented and isolated from the rest of the city.
Even with the film’s focus on representation, the movie has faced criticism for its lack of Afro-Latino lead cast members, who are the predominant residents of Washington Heights. Miranda apologized for this oversight shortly after the film’s release a few weeks ago and reminds us that even for a movie with such a strong focus on representation, there is still more work to be done.
Nevertheless, there is much to love about the movie version of In the Heights, starting with its accurate portrayal of the long history of immigration and cultural change that has been brewing in the Manhattan neighborhood for decades. As chronicled by Smithsonian Magazine’s Nili Blanck, Washington Heights was home to Russian, European and Latin American immigrants (mainly Puerto Ricans and Cubans) in the 1950s and ‘60s. It has since vastly changed into a Dominican community. During the latter part of the 20th century, however, Washington Heights became known as a community plagued by crime. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that this neighborhood began rebuilding that initial spark of optimism and potential, which serves as the iconic setting for this movie musical.