Movies

In the Heights’ Light-Skinned Cast Fails to Do Latinx Communities Justice

Lin-Manuel Miranda himself even had to apologize to Afro-Latinx viewers.

Four women surround one younger woman sitting in a salon chair. All four women are light-skinned. From left to right they have black hair, brown hair with blonde undertones, light brown hair, red hair, and curly light brown hair. They are in a salon with pink walls.
Warner Bros. Pictures

In the Heights, director Jon M. Chu’s cinematic adaptation of the 2008 Broadway smash hit, has received praise for its refreshing and multidimensional representations of the Latinx diaspora. But ever since the first trailer premiered in 2019, the film has cultivated some backlash, even prompting a public apology from its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The problem: the film’s lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx folks in lead roles, which critics have since called out as a product of colorism and anti-Blackness in Hollywood—and in Latinx communities as a whole.

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The clip from the film’s initial trailer features protagonist Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) narrating the barrio’s gentrification while shots from the movie’s bigger dance scenes play in the background. All the Latinx leads featured in the trailer are white or light-skinned, where dark-skinned Afro-Latinx people are seen in the background of the hair salon or in the many ensemble dance groups.

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Though critiques of the trailer circulated on social media at the time, the pandemic ended up delaying the release of In the Heights a full year after that initial trailer. But with the renewed press cycle, the criticism once again came to the fore.

“Where are all of the leading dark-skinned Afro-Latinx folks?” wrote the Root’s Felice León, just ahead of the film’s June 11 release, in reference to both the original trailer and more recent, updated ones, including an early look at the film’s first eight minutes. “Granted, the trailer (and film) showcased Black dancers and there were certainly Black women in the hair salon, but where are the dark-skinned Black Latinx folks with a storyline?”

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León also interviewed Chu and actors Leslie Grace (Nina) and Melissa Barrera (Vanessa) for her piece, asking them about the criticisms leveraged against In the Heights for being colorist when casting its leads. Chu’s response: “Listen, we’re not going to get everything right in a movie. We tried our best on all fronts of it.”

“I think it’s important to note, though, that in the audition process—which was a long audition process—there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there, a lot of darker skinned people. And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles,” Barrera added. “And because … Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel really truthful to what the community looks like.”

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These comments failed to satisfy those with concerns about the film’s racial makeup. “Every interview reaffirms that the directors, actors & producers of in the heights don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about colorism or anti-black racism,” New York Times arts critic fellow Isabelia Herrera wrote on Twitter following León’s published interview.* “Now is a moment to read, listen & learn.”

As the interview began to be shared widely on Twitter leading up to the film’s release in theaters and on HBO Max, the criticism grew louder. “The reality is that Black people were once again excluded from a narrative that couldn’t exist without them,” wrote Monica Castillo for NPR in regard to the film. As others pointed out, the racial makeup was reminiscent of the concept of mestizaje (or racial mixing) that helped define Latinx identity as one whose value was determined by its proximity to whiteness.

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“So I watched #InTheHeights. Listen, I’ve lived in the heights for nearly 10 years on and off - there are NOT that many light skinned folk up here,” tweeted one Twitter user. “The movie just wasn’t black enough for me. I’m glad it got made - but Dark skinned Latinos exist y’all. I’m tired.”

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The three Afro-Latinx leads in the film, Daphne Rubin-Vega (who plays Daniela), Dascha Polanco (Cuca), and Leslie Grace, are all light-skinned. And the only Black lead, Corey Hawkins’ Benny, is canonically also the sole non-Latinx character in the musical and film versions of In the Heights.

“If we’re going to tell Latinx stories, we should be honest about colorism and racism in our communities,” Black Puerto Rican writer (and Autostraddle editor-in-chief) Carmen Phillips tweeted in response to the film’s omission. “The decision to cut the plot of Nina’s dad being anti-Black from the play and the online conversations about colorism in the movie are of the same coin.”

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On Monday, the film’s producer/composer/lyricist/co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda finally broke his silence on the issue with a statement on Twitter: “I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback,” he wrote. “I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy. … I’m truly sorry.”

Fellow Boricua Rita Moreno came to Miranda’s defense too. In an interview with Stephen Colbert on Tuesday to promote her new, Miranda-produced documentary, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, Moreno said, “This is the man who literally has brought Latino-ness and Puerto Rican-ness to America. … There’s a lot of people who are Puertorriqueños, who are also from Guatemala, who are dark and who are also fair. We are all colors in Puerto Rico. And this is how it is, and it would be so nice if they hadn’t come up with that and just left it alone, just for now.”

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Neither Moreno’s nor Miranda’s response have totally ended the debate over In the Heights and representation. “When will folks learn? Better, when will folks hire different hues of Black actors, Black consultants and/or Black editors,” wrote podcaster Demetria L. Lucas in an Instagram post in response to Miranda’s apology. “One high-ranking Black person in the room could told Miranda and Chu, you have a colorism/representation problem.”

According to many Afro-Latinx critics, by not more accurately and deliberately representing dark-skinned Afro-Latinx characters and the demographics of Washington Heights, In the Heights failed to do what Miranda, in his apology, claimed was his goal: represent the entirety of the Latinx community. And as Latinx media scholar Arcelia Gutiérrez tweeted, “My fellow non-Black Latinxs, it’s not up to us to accept or reject [Lin-Manuel Miranda’s] apology… Please take time to sit with the (extremely valid) critiques … and reflect on what you mean when you advocate for Latinx representation.”

Read all of Slate’s coverage of In the Heights.

Correction, June 16, 2021: This article originally misspelled Isabelia Herrera’s last name.

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