Getting to the Heights: The Latinx Neighborhood at Work and Play in Jon M. Chu’s and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s New Musical

Jon Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda on the set of In the Heights (Warner Bros.)
Catherine Benamou discusses the urban musical In the Heights and unpacks its complex relationship with the Latinx neighborhood of Washington Heights.

With actors skipping, gyrating, undulating, and snapping to the beat, the new musical In the Heights, adapted for the screen by writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, director Jon M. Chu, and lyricist, performer, and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda from the homonymous Tony-award winning Broadway play (2008), brings together various strands of latinidad with an urban sensibility. The tale of loss and longing, getting ahead, and double romance is targeted mainly to an audience of Latinx and BIPOC millennials and Gen Z. The film and play get their title from Washington Heights, the populous neighborhood in the northernmost tip of Manhattan that has been by turn home to Eastern European, Irish, and Hispanic Caribbean (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico) immigrants. Today, it is predominantly Dominican, and harbors light industry, small mom-and-pop businesses, and intense political campaigns both for New York and Dominican elections. The film was shot pre-pandemic and for many it injects a new dynamism into a community that was hit hard, home as it is to many essential workers. The film has also brought musical spectacle back to long-shuttered theaters, potentially a welcome haven for young people who have been Zooming in place for too long.

With Latinxs in key roles both in front of and behind the camera, In the Heights (Warner Brothers, 2021) is making its splash during a Latinx feature movie drought. Not only were there no Latinx focused films, actors, or behind the camera talent among last year’s Oscar nominees, but a USC Annenberg study found that Latinx characters comprised only 4.9% of the speaking roles in a 1,300-film sample of work produced in the US between 2007 and 2019.1Stacy L. Smith, “Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBTQ, and Disability, from 2007 to 2019”(report, Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, USC Annenberg, September 2020) 2; cited in Vanessa Martínez and Aida Ylanan, 2021, “The Numbers Tell a Woeful Story,” Los Angeles Times calendar, June 13, 2021. UCLA’s 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report revealed that only 3% of all film directors and writers in their study were Latinx,2The UCLA figure is based on a review of the top 185 English-language feature and streaming films in 2020; cited in Saida Rodríguez Pagán, “Needs Improvement,” palabra, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, July 3, 2021. when Latinxs represent 18.7% of the US population (according to the US Bureau of the Census). With its ample commercial budget, energetic, star-embroidered cast, and the original stage production’s popularity, In the Heights seemed to be firmly on track to becoming a summer blockbuster. Yet the film’s release drew initially disappointing box office returns,3Ryan Faughnder, “Not Such Great ‘Heights’,” The Wide Shot newsletter, Los Angeles Times June 2021. Chu’s directing has garnered mixed reviews, and there has been some pushback from audience sectors regarding casting decisions that favored intra-ethnic colorism. Overlooked in much of the criticism has been Chu’s take on the musical genre, and the approach to depicting New York City, its setting and location. Although its plot and some of the choreography follow the lines of a classical musical (thereby securing its commercial potential), the creators aimed for realism in visual style, and the musical tempo, which keys into genres of Latin and urban music, guides the editing in pivotal scenes. The film focuses on a vibrant, yet economically vulnerable neighborhood and places it in dramatic tension with centers of creative capital and academe. How can sustainable bridges among these sectors be built? This article also contemplates the apparent disconnect between the politics of the production-in-progress and the politics transpiring from the film’s post-pandemic commercial release.

Aerial View of Washington Heights (photo credit: Yan Fang, Unsplash)

The narrative of In the Heights pivots on the fates of four characters: Usnavi (Brooklynite Anthony Ramos, who played Hamilton’s son in the Broadway play), a young, orphaned Dominican who tends the neighborhood bodega and dreams of returning to the island where his parents were born; Vanessa (Mexican-born Melissa Barrera), Usnavi’s love interest, who is searching for a creative outlet for her fashion talents; Nina Rosario (Bronxite Leslie Grace), a disaffected Nuyorican college student on summer vacation from Stanford; and the Cuban-born abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz from the stage production), who is a surrogate grandmother figure for Usnavi, Nina, and their friends. Each of these characters is shown to be a pillar of the community, a status they achieve through hard work, caring, and compassion. Usnavi, whose store is home base for many on their way to work, is a role model for his witty young cousin Sonny (Gregory Díaz IV) and a griot educating younger generations regarding neighborhood history. Despite having worked at menial jobs all her life, abuela Claudia is revered as the matriarch of the block, her kitchen and table, brimming with Caribbean specialties such as arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, pasteles, and flan, mark special occasions by remaining open to the community. Nina has been launched as the best and brightest ambassadress for the neighborhood—and the city—and is a source of pride for her father Kevin (masterfully performed by Brooklynite Jimmy Smits), a self-educated owner of a car service. Yet, she contemplates returning to the heights after suffering micro-aggressive discrimination during her freshman year at Stanford. And Vanessa embodies what appears to be a goal of the film, to transform the vernacular aesthetic of the neighborhood into a viable art form.

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera dancing in a tenement patio (Warner Bros.)

True to the logic of musical plots, the fates of these characters are carefully intertwined, and they each provide a portal onto the range of aspirations and daily sacrifices made by members of the community. In place of class-based and inter-ethnic strains that could easily have arisen, the filmmakers provide subtle vehicles of transculturation, such as Vanessa adding her personal touches to “downtown” style, Nina letting her hair “go natural” at the neighborhood salon, and Usnavi solidifying his friendship with Benny (Washingtonian Corey Hawkins) in a jovial rap sequence, smoothing a gap in skills and ambition between them. At issue is whether, in pursuing their personal goals, they will leave the tightly knit community behind, and whether the film’s creators, who enveloped the production in a discourse of representational authenticity, can deliver performative energy and a rendering of New York that are culturally relevant and compelling. The emphasis placed on a realist aesthetic increased the reliance on neighborhood resources and lessened digitized flights into fantasy.  Style is not something to be imposed, but to be embodied, materially woven into scenes. With its integrative choreography, its respectful immigration reform protest, and its modestly attired principal cast, the film stops short of the carnivalesque. Some candid footage of neighborhood life can be glimpsed in the film’s official trailer.  Yet the realism has also raised expectations concerning sociocultural authenticity.

Not as politically edgy and tough-headed as Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1981), set in East Los Angeles (also adapted from a stage play), and not as boldly modernist and socially incendiary as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), set and shot in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, In the Heights, which at its choreographic and synesthetic best evokes the highpoints of those films, has been criticized for its phenotypically light-skinned cast (thereby glossing over the neighborhood’s Afro-Latinx pulse), notwithstanding a few African-American actors and characters. Addressing the online debate, journalist Saida Rodríguez Pagán diplomatically responded, “it was an opportunity to show the range of Latinos… perhaps have some darker skinned Latinos speaking Spanish, or the fact that we all mix, you know, dark and light couple(s)…but I don’t know if that was the intention of the movie.”4Interviewed on the Laura Flanders show, quoted in “Blockbuster or Blunder? Saida Rodríguez Pagán Tackles In the Heights,” palabra email communication, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, July 4, 2021. Miranda himself issued an online (Twitter) apology for the unintended “colorism” in the principal cast that hurt some audience members.5For more on the importance of colorism in this film, see Maira García, Sandra E. García, Isabel Herrera, Concepción de León, and A.O. Scott, “’In the Heights’ and Colorism:  What Is Lost When Afro-Latinos are Erased,” The New York Times, June 21, 2021. It is unclear whether the café con leche look resulted from a desire to reach across the country by achieving a pan-Latinx — rather than rooted, ethnic—feel or whether it derives from the complexion of casting in the original Broadway production, but the intention, if one listens to Lin-Manuel Miranda in a recently recapped interview by NPR’s Terri Gross, was to open a space for stories from under-portrayed communities of New York to be told and given front stage visibility. Here was an opportunity to expand that visibility, yet somewhere in the transition from Broadway play to the global screen it became compromised. Consequently, the possibility of ethnocultural recognition for a broader spectrum of Latinx viewers was reduced.

One of In the Heights’s strengths is that, like Do the Right Thing, the set design (Nelson Coates) and cinematography (Alice Brooks) work to convey a sense of place: aspects of the neighborhood’s built environment, such as the stairway of a six-floor walk-up tenement (opening sequence), two subway stations, a school playground, the car service headquarters, a beauty salon, and an outdoor public pool in addition to a bodega all form the basis for the film’s mise-en-scene, and Chu and crew deftly blend location shots with cutaways to scenic sets. This works to ground “fantasy” sequences — such as the beauty salon gossip scene and the “96 G” synchronized swimming scene — in the everyday. With the exception of the mass chorus and crowd dance sequences (hundreds of dancers and dozens of vocalists were hired for the film), the cinematography is kept at close range and scenes are focalized from the perspective of participants (whether the principals or supporting roles).  In one bodega scene, Chu nods to Jean-Luc Godard and Spike Lee by having Usnavi face the audience in direct eye-level address. Myron Kirstein’s editing in the musical sequences is subtly rhythmic, alternately synced and syncopated with the beat of the music, which, like the cinematography, draws us into scenes to focus on the human figure within the mise-en-scène. Additional touches include the map of the #1 subway line as a graphic motif and Miranda’s casting of himself as a piragua (flavored ice cone) vendor who wages a winning battle against a Mr. Softee truck.

That said, the film treads lightly where the predominantly Dominican identity of the neighborhood is concerned — one misses hearing more Spanish spoken and merengue music, which should have been as much a part of the neighborhood soundtrack as youthful English slang, hip hop, clave, and salsa. It is more than a question of phenotype and percussion style, however; it is also the eclipsing of a struggle for political self-representation and against the incursion of chain and megastores led by members of the fastest growing Latinx population in New York.6In 2010 Adriano Espaillat was elected to the state senate, and in 2016 became the first Dominican elected to the U.S. Congress; Juan Cartagena, “Latina/o Voting Rights in New York City,” in Latinos In New York:  Communities in Transition, eds. Sherrie Baver, Angelo Falcón, and Gabriel Haslip-Viera, second edition (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2017), 285-86; see also the discussion of small business associations in Christian Krohn-Hansen, Making New York Dominican (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press), 2013. The film is also subtle in its “reality checks” — we learn from Usnavi’s alcoholic uncle Gapo (Marc Anthony) in a brief aside that Sonny is an unauthorized immigrant, and Maria Hinojosa (producer and host of the podcast Latino U.S.A.) has a cameo as a community leader who divulges the real-life obstacles faced by DACA recipients — the same obstacles to an education from which Sonny will hopefully be spared. Vanessa loses her opportunity at an apartment “downtown” (where she wants to make a go of it as a fashion designer) not just because she lacks a co-signer for the lease, but also, we are led to suspect, because she doesn’t look “white” and Anglo enough. Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) the beauty salon owner is forced to move to the Bronx because gentrification begins to grip the block, and with her salon, goes one possibility of forging an ethnic crossroads. Finally, when the neighborhood loses power to a blackout, Miranda and Chu counter with a slow-paced candlelit musical number, “Paciencia y Fé” (Patience and Faith). This evolves into a meditative sequence, focalized through abuela Claudia, featuring uniformly clad dancers in abstract modern dance movements set underground in a subway station, a visual metaphor for nostalgic remembrance.

Olga Merediz in the “Paciencia y Fe” sequence (Warner Bros.)

Yet while the creators court pathos, they eschew melodrama, and what In the Heights may lack in social critique or verisimilitude it begins to make up in heart and cinematic prowess. Miranda drew inspiration from his maternal grandparents in developing the abuela Claudia and piragüero characters, and Alegría Hudes and two of the actresses (Rubin-Vega and Dascha Polanco, who plays Cuca) have recalled with fondness the many hours spent on and off set with local heights residents. Polanco had this to say about the experience of working on the film, which might be considered its ethos: “I think of the idea of human connection after the year that we’ve had, and the idea of the Latin community, the Hispanic community.  Our community has had the opportunity to have people like Lin, people like Quiara to write scripts and to provide opportunities for all of us, BIPOC people, actors and artists and I think that’s something that’s essential for us to see on the screen, but also to see in the neighborhoods, where we get to inspire the small businesses, and the people that have the frío fríos and the pastelitos and the dominos, and we learn that we’re not just a community that makes noise, we’re a community that makes change, and we make movement…”7“Latinas in the Heights,” #Latinasrepresent, Hispanicize, April 21, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDCtwLeoFzI In this context, mobility is of course sociopolitical as well as kinesthetic. The key word from the standpoint of the plot, however, is “staying power” – whether Usnavi will continue to support Sonny, whether Vanessa will realize her fashion dream, whether Nina will stay at Stanford, and her high school flame Benny will stay true to her. Polanco, again: “we’re not here to take over, we’re here to be part of, and we belong. At times when we feel we’re being pushed out, we resist, yes, and we have a right to….” One is hard-pressed to find resistance, however, in a film that emphasizes acceptance. To these questions, one might add: will this film secure the public screen long enough to inspire a new cohort of Latinx actors and directors, or to pave the way for a new wave of urban-based Latinx filmmaking?

Kids playing in fire hydrants near the bridge (Warner Bros.)

Despite a video plug by Oprah, a webinar, “Latinas in the Heights,” with Hudes, Polanco, and Rubin-Vega sponsored by Hispanicize, and a theatrical buy out (#LatinxGoldOpen) organized by the National Association of Latino Producers (NALIP) in coordination with the AAPI Gold House in advance of the theatrical release the weekend of June 11th, according to LA Times film business reporter, Ryan Faughnder, In the Heights fell at least $4 million short of the $15 to $20 million the producers were looking to take in at the box office opening weekend.8Faughnder, “Not Such Great ‘Heights’.” For a short-term answer, it is possible that box office expectations were set too high given that theaters are just beginning to re-open after the pandemic and the film was simultaneously released on HBO Max, which WarnerMedia owns. (Ironically, the HBO Max release strategy was a move to guard against theatrical losses from the pandemic.).9Ryan Faughnder, Meg James, and Anousha Sakoui, “Shaken Studios. Empty Theaters. What Hollywood Lost During the Pandemic,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2020. Television ads in advance of the film’s opening prominently showed the HBO Max logo, rather than “coming to a theater near you.” Faughnder recently speculated that simultaneous theatrical releases and PVOD (Premium Video on Demand) availability have hurt other would-be summer blockbusters as well.10Ryan Faughnder, “Hollywood’s Box Office ‘Decay’ Problem,” The Wide Shot newsletter, Los Angeles Times July 27, 2021. The theatrical hurdle is especially important in the context of New York City, which was so adversely affected by the pandemic and was the logical place for the theatrical launch to a Latinx constituency to begin. In pre-Covid 2019, Latinxs went to an average of 4.7 films that year, “the highest per capita attendance of any ethnic or racial group.”11Fidel Martínez, “Commentary: ‘In the Heights’ Should not be our Only Shot at a Latinx Blockbuster,” Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2021.

In addition to the Covid-related HBO Max release, the film has faced a few other challenges. At $55 million,12Faughnder, “Not Such Great ‘Heights’.” In the Heights is not a low-budget musical, and while there is impressive CGI, especially in the closing Benny-Nina dance sequence, the special effects overall are modestly achieved, which is to Chu’s credit:  with a significant investment made in location shooting and extra performers, In the Heights runs on people power. Also related to budget is the scale of the market the producers were trying to reach, and the goal, it seems, was to market across regions and sub-nationalities so that it is not just a “New York” film. This may help to explain the diffusion — rather than distillation — of ethnonational traits to yield a pan-Latinx veneer. For the film to be successful, as journalist Fidel Martínez suggests, it must not only “cross-over,” but must appeal to Latinxs who are the most likely to fill theater seats.13Fidel Martínez, “Driving the Box Office.  And yet…” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2021. To this I would add, the savviest way to approach this would have been to work towards an inter-ethnic crossover, building on Chu’s reputation with Crazy Rich Asians and Miranda’s experience working with BIPOC actors on Broadway, as well as Latinx-oriented social media. Did Chu’s previous success enable such a crossover? (The author attempted to contact the director, but he was unavailable for comment.) Plugging the marketing focus into global media industries softened the translocal dynamic transmitted by the Broadway play, and I would argue, the production-in-progress.

Although In the Heights was produced with a lot of attention to actor power, with community support above the line and several dance numbers shot on the actual streets of the heights, this is no longer the 1980s (when Valdez’s and Lee’s hits were filmed, and an urban wave swept the screen). The “lived topography” of New York edges its way into the picture, yet the film is ultimately a hybrid, with Chu and Miranda working to create an “indie” type film with corporate funding and marketing informing the casting and release.14The term “lived topography” was introduced by Gary Backhaus, in Gary Backhaus and John Murungi, eds., Lived Topographies and their Mediational Forces (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books), 2005. Given the tough obstacles facing indie productions post-pandemic (with the loss of insurance coverage for Covid-19 related expenses and production costs rising, indie projects have been hard-pressed to find bank loans),15See Anousha Sakoui, “Indie Films’ Tough Times Linger,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2021. the current fate of Latinx Hollywood filmmaking seems to hinge on the center of that hybrid formula being able to hold.

Post-pandemic apartment windows (Photo Credit: Clay Leconey, Unsplash)

 

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