The truth of Black erasure in ‘In the Heights’ goes beyond the movie and play
The removal of Black people from the Latino experience is an endemic problem that needs confronting on all fronts.
In the Heights, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musical, made its debut last week with a big promise of the big screen representation that Latinx people have been long asking for.
The film fell short of this promise and played into the ever familiar industry practice of excluding darker-skinned actors from its narrative, failing to showcase the overwhelming Afro-Latinx community of the very neighborhood it is celebrating — Washington Heights, New York.
in the heights really said “oh yeah it’s in washington heights but we are gonna pretend afro latinos don’t exist and it’s just light skinned latinos.” is a format of colorism and misrepresentation. while i love this movie it’s upsetting that there’s 0 proper representation
— (@itsbuttercupbb) June 11, 2021
In the Heights centers on the fast-paced and lively nature of Washington Heights, a neighborhood tucked in the north side of NYC. The neighborhood is populated by Latinx people from all over the diaspora, some Cuban, some Colombian, some Puerto Rican, but a majority of the residents hail from the Dominican Republic.
While the movie and its characters represent a beautiful melting pot of Latinx cultures, it disappointed many viewers with its lack of racial diversity. Critics were frustrated with the very small number of Afro-Latinx cast members, insisting that it doesn’t capture the accurate racial makeup of the NYC neighborhood.
Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins are the only Black actors in the mainly white-passing ensemble cast — a casting decision that is upsetting to many, considering the true demographics of the Heights.
Felice León, a writer for The Root, who is an Afro-Cuban native of NYC, brought attention to the clear disparities in representation while talking to the cast and their director, Jon M. Chu (also director of Crazy Rich Asians.)
León’s concerns were not received well and were swiftly brushed aside by Chu, who saw no issue with the exclusion of Afro-Latinx actors.
Chu said he understood the worry, but maintained that the chosen cast members were “best for the role.” Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa in the film, echoed these same sentiments.
"In the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there," Barrera explained, inadvertently digging the hole even deeper.
"A lot of darker-skinned people. 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,” Barrera said.
Grace was the only cast member that openly acknowledged the problem with the blatant exclusion, saying that she is hopeful that she’ll soon see her “brothers and sisters that are darker than me lead these movies,” in the future.
However the damage was already done, and a spirited discourse about deliberate Hollywood erasure of and discrimination against Afro-Latinx people was in the works.
Anti-Blackness and colorism in the industry is nothing new, and people have been speaking up against it for years. Chu’s very own Crazy Rich Asians has been criticized for not capturing the true diversity of Singapore.
In Singapore, where "Crazy Rich Asians" was largely shot, detractors say the cast is unrepresentative of diversity in the city-state. https://t.co/SW6OLLjPAT
— The New York Times (@nytimes) August 17, 2018
More recently, the hit Netflix series, Bridgerton, received some backlash for the way in which its Black characters were portrayed.
As magnificent as In the Heights was, it is yet another example of Black people being excluded from a narrative that couldn’t exist without them.
After taking account of the discussion sparked by his film, Miranda shared a statement on social media addressing the controversy.
"I started writing In the Heights because I didn't feel seen," reads the statement. "And over the past 20 years all I wanted is for us — ALL OF US — to feel seen."
The Hamilton creator continued by saying the film let down the Afro-Latinx community, though it was not his intention. Miranda mentioned that the conversation about the ongoing exclusion of darker-skinned people in narratives they contributed to hit home for him.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA APOLOGIZES FOR “IN THE HEIGHTS” COLORISM: The co-hosts react to Miranda apologizing to people who say he put dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in the background of #InTheHeightsMovie and cast light-skinned actors in lead roles. https://t.co/cVclFZQmjA pic.twitter.com/RTwRAkKqqo
— The View (@TheView) June 15, 2021
The discourse allowed Miranda to reflect on the role he has played in these systemic issues, and he was able to feel and express empathy towards these concerns and to the community.
"I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback," Miranda wrote. "I hear that without sufficient Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy."
He concluded the statement by thanking people for their vital feedback, insisting that his ears are open and that he pledges to use this experience to do better in the future.
“I'm dedicated to learning and evolving [what] we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community,” Miranda wrote.