Movies

In the Heights Gets What So Many Movies About Latinidad Miss

The screen version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical presents a multidimensional portrait of the diaspora.

In the Heights' salon ladies dance at the Carnaval del Barrio.
They can’t survive without café. Macall Polay/Warner Bros.

While In the Heights has been considered a step forward in representations of Latinx communities ever since its stage premiere in 2007, its main impact comes from the fact that it doesn’t push any one experience of the diaspora as the singular representation of Latinidad. Director Jon M. Chu’s (of Crazy Rich Asians) cinematic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton hit is no different in that regard. Like its stage forerunner, the film version of In the Heights necessarily divorces itself from the tired, U.S.-centric representations of Latinidad as a monolithic and static identity—proving itself a step forward in the politics of representation. As Mexican actress and In the Heights star Melissa Barrera said in an interview with Variety, much of the film deals with what she calls “the essence of Latinidad.”

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Unapologetically vibrant and joyful, In the Heights spotlights a diverse group of Latinx characters from across race, ethnicities, immigrant backgrounds, generations, and experience. And it does so in a way that feels radical in a media climate where Latinidad is often wrongfully equated with whiteness, and the most prominent Latinx actors and creatives—from Sofia Vergara to Bad Bunny—are white or light-skinned. Indeed, as In the Heights star Stephanie Beatriz told ET in an interview about the film, “Latino is a very broad statement, but what it has done traditionally is weed out people that are Black inside that community.” And while In the Heights has plenty of room to grow in terms of Afro-Latinx representation, the film, through its diversity in subject matter, largely avoids the exploitative sameness that is still expected from media representations of Latinx identity, where characters are one-dimensional stereotypes or otherwise exoticized caricatures.

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Jam-packed with a star-studded ensemble cast and showstopping musical numbers, In the Heights is refreshing in that its individual characters are allowed nuance in their expression of Latinidad. Their motivations and goals (or sueñitos) don’t exist squarely within their status as immigrants, whether first generation or fifth, nor does the film make the argument that they should. Instead, In the Heights—as the barrio’s matriarch, Abuela Claudia, says in the film—makes the compelling case for “little details that tell the world we are not invisible,” rather than generalized stories that imply a false sense of universality within Latinx communities.

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Salon artist and aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), for example, have very different relationships to the U.S. and the possible opportunities afforded by it: Vanessa is desperate to move deeper into New York City and farther away from the immigrant barrio of Washington Heights, while Usnavi dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. As Usnavi sings in “It Won’t Be Long Now,” “I’m runnin’ to make it home/ And home’s what Vanessa’s running away from.” But In the Heights doesn’t treat either of them as being sole representatives of a universal immigrant experience, nor does it present either of them as somehow being less valid in their Latinx identity.

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With the adaptation to film and to a new, larger audience—and likely a more diverse one than Broadway’s, where two-thirds of ticket-buyers are whiteIn the Heights takes advantage of the new ways in which it can bring in elements that further add to the authenticity of the film’s Latinx representations. For example, taking the story to the big screen means that the barrio which serves as the backdrop to the musical is now physically present in the film’s biggest scenes in the form of hundreds of people, adding to the film’s overwhelming sense of community. Subtitles, too, allow characters to deliver key lines entirely in Spanish, without needing to worry about comprehension by viewers who don’t speak the language. But it is also in mediating that tension between trying to authentically represent the diversity of the Latinx diaspora while doing so for a non-Latinx audience that In the Heights leaves room to improve.

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While the film takes care to showcase stories from across generations of immigrants—as shown by the focus on the barrio’s matriarch, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from the original run of the musical), the changes the film makes to her character arc undercut the tension between appreciating the life and community she has built in the U.S., and resenting the way she was forced to leave her native Cuba in order to survive. In the musical, that tension arises early on in her song “Paciencia y Fe,” where Abuela Claudia sings about her and her mother’s struggles when moving to the U.S. with nothing. But rather than let Abuela Claudia steep in that conflict as she does in the musical, eventually leading to her decision to move with Usnavi to the Dominican Republic, the film pushes “Paciencia y Fe” to the end of her character arc, where it takes place in Abuela’s imagination just before her death. In doing so, not only does the film cheat Abuela out of meaningful character development, it also quickly absolves its audiences from needing to spend more time unpacking the complex motivations that are true of many immigrant experiences, and leaves Abuela’s story too hastily wrapped up.

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Similarly, one of the biggest changes between the theatrical production and the film adaptation is the conflict that complicates the relationship between Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), the second-generation Puerto Rican immigrant and first in her family to attend university, and Benny (Corey Hawkins), the Black taxi dispatcher who works for Nina’s father, and is also the only non-Latinx lead in In the Heights. In the musical, their budding relationship is initially blocked by the racism of Nina’s father, who refuses to see Benny as more than an outsider in the barrio. In the film, that necessary plot point is wholly erased. Kevin Rosario (played by Jimmy Smits in the film), who in the musical can be considered a more nuanced antagonist who undergoes a critical moment of growth, is instead reduced to a two-dimensional stereotype of the protective Latinx father who is so concerned with assimilation that his daughter, at times, feels forced to attend Stanford and make it out of the barrio. The main romance between Benny and Nina, too, suffers from the lack of a more robust arc. Given the widespread racial reckoning that came with the Movement for Black Lives last summer, this omission from the original story comes across as a misstep and lost opportunity to meaningfully confront deep-rooted prejudices in the Latinx community.

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As Miranda said in an interview with Reuters, “No one movie can encompass the sheer tonnage of stories we have to offer.” And it is precisely because In the Heights is unfortunately still so singular in its mission to tell authentic, complex Latinx stories for blockbuster audiences that it crumbles at times under the weight of that tension. It would be unfair to expect In the Heights to touch upon every single aspect of Latinidad—an identity whose very definition is rooted in complex systems of colonialism, anti-Blackness, and oppression—though it does prove a notable effort to do so. But it is in these unnecessary translations from stage to screen that the film loses some of its most genuine attempts at engaging with and complicating the dominant narratives that have too often been accepted as sufficient representations of Latinx communities and identities.

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

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