“Technically, it is superb; use of color is dazzling, camera work often is thrilling, editing fast with dramatic punch, production design catches mood as well as action itself.”
This quote, written by Whitney Williams in 1961 for Variety heralding the soon-to-be released “West Side Story,” could easily be used to describe “In the Heights,” Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of the 2008 Tony Award-winning smash hit penned by a pre-”Hamilton” Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“In the Heights” follows the everyday lives and dreams of inhabitants of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in northern Manhattan. The main protagonist is Usnavi, a bodega owner who dreams of traveling back to his native Dominican Republic. Through his bodega, we meet the main cast of characters, all of them carrying their own storylines. We see the community reckon with the encroaching gentrification of their neighborhood, their dreams lit up by a winning lottery ticket sold in Usnavi’s neighborhood and dampened by a days-long blackout.
This film contains a number of fantastic performances — some star-affirming as is the case for Anthony Ramos, who dazzles as Usnavi. For others, this is the triumphant culmination of long careers, such as that of Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, the surrogate grandmother of Usnavi’s barrio.
Still, this film suffers from lack of equity, as many do. Like “West Side Story'' before it, “In the Heights” has received criticism about racist and colorist casting choices centered on the film’s lack of dark-skinned Afro Latin lead characters, something Miranda publicly addressed Monday night.
“It is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within (“In the Heights”), particularly among the leading roles,” Miranda wrote. “I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback.”
Miranda continues on in the statement to apologize for coming up short and vows to learn and do better in future work. His statement avoids the regrettable implication made by Chu and cast member Melissa Barrera that the chosen cast was simply the best out of those who auditioned, during an interview with Felice León of The Root. This is a common excuse that has been used by hirers in all industries when asked why more of their hirees are not of color.
So what are we to do with “In the Heights?” Even as it fails Afro Latin communities, this movie’s success is seen as essential for continuing Latinx progress in the film industry. I’ve been told by people I know who have rarely cared much about movie trends that they’ve been tracking the film’s earnings and hoping for Oscar nods. Will Hollywood ever make a huge investment in a Latinx-led project again if this movie fails?
This film would not be an undeniable masterpiece even if the casting had been nailed. Storylines involving the supporting romantic pair, Benny and Nina, seem to run out halfway through the movie’s runtime, leaving them with one dedicated set piece in the second act that works tremendously as trailer fodder, but feels tacked-on within the totality of the film.
Changes made to characters and plot during the adaptation process are obvious even to those who haven’t seen the theatrical version due to small inconsistencies with the lyrics of songs that were only minorly changed.
The best part of “In the Heights” is the ease with which it uses every facet of filmmaking, from its bright and inventive cinematography to its tactile sound design. The experience of seeing it in theater was a total elation for the white-passing Latino writing this article.
I hope that if “In the Heights” fails to be the huge success that summer movies are expected to be, it’s at least given a chance to include those who were left out in this movie. If it does succeed, I hope that its success is used as a down payment to start the process of expanding Latinx representation until all of us get to be seen.
Matthew Salcido is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @baggyeyedguy