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.
A Long Journey to the Cinema
What surprises many viewers and fans of In the Heights is that it reached success way before the era of Hamilton. According to a recent article in Vox, Miranda originally wrote the musical in his sophomore year of college (1999) while he was a student at Wesleyan University. The musical took nearly a decade to make it to Broadway (2008), and then more than another decade to produce into a blockbuster movie. Throughout the show’s history, In the Heights has won considerable praise from the theater world and music lovers across the globe, including multiple Tony awards. With an all-star team of playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, Crazy Rich Asians director Chu and a talented cast and crew, the movie-musical is now reaching heights far greater than anticipated.
The struggle itself in getting this story out into the public speaks to the specific trials that Latino immigrants must overcome to deal with the rapidly growing places that surround them. Just as the residents of Washington Heights fight to make their voices heard in the film, Miranda fought to share his music with the world and show the entertainment industry the need for diverse stories. The Puerto Rican and Cuban-inspired salsa song “Carnival Del Barrio” perfectly reflects that struggle:
“Maybe you’re right, Sonny. Call in the coroners. Maybe we’re powerless, a corner full of foreigners. Maybe this neighborhood’s changing forever. Maybe tonight is our last night together, however! How do you wanna face it? Do you wanna waste it, when the end is so close you can taste it? Y’all could cry with your head in the sand. I’mma fly this flag that I got in my hand.”
Along with this song, In the Heights features a number of other tunes that delve deeper into the meaning of faith, legacy and change. “96,000” and “In the Heights” are especially important in reflecting the tight-knit nature of this community, with extravagant dance numbers and a mix of hip hop and Latin melodies that invigorate the characters to express their emotions freely with one another on the streets of Washington Heights. Whether it’s at an outdoor pool or outside of the bodega, each musical number is a carefully-crafted showstopper with Latin-inspired choreography and, as sound editor Lewis Goldstein describes it in an interview with Backstage’s Casey Mink, mostly live singing that was recorded as each scene was being filmed. Mink goes on further to explain how the filmmakers of this movie made it a priority to capture the real emotions happening in each moment of filming.
“A Latino Explosion!”
In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, Anthony Ramos declares with pride that In the Heights is “a Latino explosion!” He goes on to explain that he never had a musical like this growing up and that it meant a lot for him to play a role in this exciting time of Latino visibility in the media. Prior to In the Heights, there were few musicals, movies or other forms of narrative media that put Latino characters at centerstage. According to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report, only 5.4% of film leads were Latinx in 2020. More often, Latino actors are reduced to background roles in major Hollywood films and Broadway shows.
What is most impactful about In the Heights is that it strives to tell the story of an often-overlooked community, a story that reflects the ups and downs of working-class immigrants. Each character is complex and unique, and rather than painting them in a negative light, Miranda and Chu balance the characters’ struggles with hopes and dreams. On top of this, the integration of music to bring everything together is what the audience needs to get up on their feet and start dancing and singing. This film is most definitely a community event (one available both in theaters and streaming on HBO Max) that should be a shared experience among family, friends, and devoted musical theater fans.
So if you’re in the mood for an uplifting musical that proudly displays the power of music and community, be sure to check out In the Heights – it’s the must-see movie of the summer!