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Issue 17 Out Now

The ‘In the Heights’ controversy is more than skin deep

Viewers have described the film’s lack of Black leads as proof of Afro-Latine erasure.

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures


Throughout his career, Lin-Manuel Miranda has undoubtedly transformed musical theatre. From seamlessly integrating hip hop into Broadway productions to casting almost exclusively BIPOC actors in his projects, in every body of work he creates — from musicals Hamilton and 21 Chump Street to the soundtrack for the film Moana — Miranda centers those who have been historically marginalized. These efforts have not been without contention — for example, many, including the late Toni Morrison, maintain that Hamilton wrongfully celebrates the founding fathers, many of whom were slave owners.


So, it’s only mildly surprising that with the recent release of In the Heights, the film adaptation of his 2008 musical, Miranda is once again facing backlash — this time for the film’s failure to represent the Black residents of Washington Heights, the New York City neighborhood in which the film takes place. In the dialogue that’s been unfolding online, it’s interesting to examine the interplay between representation, erasure, and cancel culture when those on both sides of the conversation are fighting for much-needed visibility.


For context, Washington Heights is known as a “Little Dominican Republic” because it is made up of predominantly Dominican immigrants. As a result, the neighborhood, like the DR, has a large Black population, with residents claiming various races and primarily Latin American nationalities as well. However, from a glance at the film’s predominantly light-skinned or white-passing cast, In the Heights seems to depict a very different neighborhood.


Of the main ensemble, Leslie Grace — who is Afro-Dominican — and Corey Hawkins, who is African-American, are the only Black-identifying actors. As Hawkins’ character is not Latino and Grace is light-skinned, for many this representation, while positive, was not enough to sufficiently reflect the community’s diversity — specifically that of its darker-skinned Afro-Latine inhabitants.


Jon Chu, the film’s director, addressed the controversy in an interview for The Root with reporter Felice León, saying that he and his team “tried to get the people who were best for those roles” and that he “needed to be educated.” Chu faced a similar critique after directing the film Crazy Rich Asians, in which all of the main characters were light-skinned or of East Asian descent despite the large Malay and Indian populations in Singapore, where the film takes place, for many his remarks fell flat.


In the same interview, Mexican actress Melissa Barrera, who stars in the film, similarly suggested that the cast’s lack of darker-skinned actors was not due to colorism, but because none of the many dark-skinned actors that auditioned were suitable for the lead roles.


“In the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there, a lot of darker-skinned people,” she said. “And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character to the fullest extent.”


Both Barrera and Chu also cited the darker-skinned background dancers in the movie’s musical numbers as evidence of the film’s diversity.

“Because the cast ended up being us, 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 very truthful to what the community looks like,” Barrera said.


This sentence, which is problematic on multiple levels, reveals the flawed reasoning at the heart of the film’s controversy.


Describing “Black and Latinx people” as mutually exclusive implies that Black Latine people do not exist and thus, can have no place in representations of Latinidad (except, perhaps, as extras). This assumption — intentional or not — clearly played a role in not only the casting of this film but in almost every scarce example of Latine representation we presently see in television and film. Because the media incessantly presents Black identity as one-dimensional, for many it is unfathomable that members of the African diaspora can claim innumerable nationalities, cultures, and languages, including Afro-Latine identity.


The issue goes far deeper than the complexion of a few actors: it’s about accuracy and erasure. In the Heights disappointed so many people because though beautiful, it is a dishonest portrayal of a community that would be nothing without the cultural contributions of Black Latines.


Three days after the film’s release, Miranda tweeted apologizing for the lack of Afro-Latine representation in the film and promised to “do better” with his future projects.


“I started writing In the Heights because I didn’t feel seen. And over the past 20 years, all I wanted was for us — ALL of us to feel seen,” he wrote. “I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback. 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. In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry.”


Despite its shortcomings, I ultimately believe the film deserves success. In the Heights is a stunning portrait of an underrepresented community in all of its nuance and complexity, and given the countless franchises that get away with casting a token BIPOC character, I think that attempts to boycott the film penalize the wrong people. There’s space to critique the film without canceling it.


I just wish that in 2021, after an exhausting year of discussions about anti-racism and representation, Black folks weren’t having the same conversations again — begging to be seen and even, dare I say, celebrated.


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