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Image / Living / Culture

Everything you need to know about ‘In the Heights’ and why people are accusing it of colourism


By Sarah Finnan
16th Jun 2021

In the Heights

Everything you need to know about ‘In the Heights’ and why people are accusing it of colourism

The hotly-anticipated movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights’ opens in Irish cinemas later this week, however, the movie has been met with some criticism – largely due to its casting.

In the Heights this, Lin-Manuel Miranda that – the internet is awash with all things musical related this week as anticipation builds for the release of the screen adaptation of the Broadway hit. A movie drama based on the stage musical of the same name, the action centres on a small street corner in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of upper Manhattan.

Due for release in Irish cinemas this Friday, it’s one of the first films we plan on going to see since theatres reopened earlier this month and we can almost taste the cinema popcorn already.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Most of the music made it into the movie 

Hamilton may have risen to international acclaim first, but In the Heights was actually Miranda’s first musical. A Tony-Award winning production, it charts the struggles and joys of the majority Latino community in the Washington Heights area of NYC. Highlighting issues of racism, gentrification, poverty and immigration, as with Hamilton, the stage show came to be known for its hit musical numbers but we have some bad news on that front – not all the songs made it into the movie. Only eight songs were cut from the original soundtrack though, so don’t worry too much as most of your favourites are still likely to feature. What didn’t make it in? According to Refinery29, the unlucky eight include “Inútil”, “Siempre (Always)”, “Sunrise”, “Hundreds of Stories”, “Enough”, “Atención”, “Everything I Know” and “No Me Diga (Reprise)”. 

Casting controversy 

Not without its critics, the movie has faced some backlash on its casting though. A celebration of Latin culture, some have accused the movie adaptation of colourism in its casting. All of the main Latinx characters are portrayed by light-skinned and white-passing actors with only one Black character played by non-Latino actor Corey Hawkins – something fans were quick to point out makes for an inaccurate depiction of Washington Heights. 

According to an article published in The Guardian, Latin American actors account for less than 5% of speaking roles in top Hollywood movies in the past decade. Bringing the topic up in an interview with John M Chu, the movie’s director, digital magazine The Root host Felice Léon questioned him on what he would say to the idea that “In the Heights privileges white-passing and light-skinned Latinx people” over others. Agreeing that it’s a “fair conversation to have”, his words don’t seem to hold much meaning given that he did nothing to facilitate further discussion of the matter. Two other cast members also commented on the matter later as well.

Leslie Grace, the actress who plays Nina, said that she hopes the movie paves the way for greater diversity in the film world commenting, “I didn’t realize until making this movie that I didn’t really get to see myself or people that looked like my siblings, that are darker than me, onscreen. I hope that this is cracking that glass ceiling. Because I do hope to see my brothers and sisters that are darker than me lead these movies”

Meanwhile, Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa, claimed that there were lots of Afro-Latinos at the auditions – adding that she thinks the final casting came down to picking “the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent”. “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”, she told Léon.

Since addressing the colourism claims himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda admitted that the accusations are well-founded. Apologising for his shortcomings in ensuring that the Afro-Latinx community was properly represented, the playwright released a statement in which he said, “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.

“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback, he continued.

Assuring fans that he is “listening” and “learning from the feedback”, he finished by promising to do better on future projects.

“I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”

Tick, Tick… Boom!

The trailer for another Lin-Manuel Miranda special also dropped last week, this one starring Andrew Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens. Titled Tick, Tick… Boom!, the movie marks Miranda’s directorial debut and is expected to land on Netflix sometime this year. Centred on main character Jonathan Larson (the IRL Broadway legend behind hit musical Rent), the movie is a lightly fictionalised version of his early years. Based on a musical by Larson of the same name, it tells the tale of how he went from struggling writer to international success – fighting relationship woes, dealing with friendship pressure and trying to make it in a world where the AIDS crisis is ravaging his social circle.