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The cultural importance of ‘In the Heights’

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Where do you come from? When you think of home, what people, places and languages make your heart swell with pride? Whatever that answer may be, it deserves representation. Cultural representation is extremely important in literature, on the stage and on the screen. As of 2021, Hollywood is slowly but surely diversifying and touching on stories that have been in the shadows for quite some time. 

One of the stories being brought to the big screen this week is Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights,” a 2008 musical that’s set in a predominantly Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York. The musical shows the owner of a bodega watching the lives of different people in his community as they pass through his shop over the course of three days.

When the movie was announced, people rejoiced in seeing that Anthony Ramos, a theater actor that has risen to stardom by the side of Miranda, was being cast in the lead role of Usnavi. With gentrification being a theme of the story itself, the concern of having people cast in the lead roles that were either considered “white washing,” or “brown washing” was prominent. 

It was important to keep the cast diverse and authentic to the story being told, which is exactly what Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Tesley had in mind when casting the film. Even Miranda himself has a minor role in the film alongside Christopher Jackson, both of whom had lead roles in the original broadway production. 

The telling of this Tony-award winning musical on the big screen is a big deal in 2021 for many reasons. As gentrification continues to surge throughout black and immigrant communities such as it did in Washington Heights, it’s important to see an accurate portrayal of how gentrification not only displaces many, but leaves those who choose to stay with limited resources in affordable living and job opportunities. 

This made it increasingly important to keep the authenticity of the Latin atmosphere while designing the set for “In The Heights,” which is exactly what production designer Nelson Coates tried to do.“You’re trying to deep dive into a specific culture, food, furniture, art—the things that are held so dear [locally] that they’re just as important to the storytelling process,” said Coates as he discussed creating visuals for the film. 

Coates walked the streets to find good filming locations. Replicating the divide between the East and West side of the Heights took extensive attention to detail to avoid stereotyping. Most of the set, if not utilizing the original buildings that were referenced in the musical, was designed to give the most genuine feeling possible. “It’s about getting the details correct — color, the flavors, and making it feel authentic to whatever constituency you’re working with,” said Coates.

Another thing director Jon M. Chu and Coates wanted to perfect with “In The Heights” was the cultural accuracy. To this day, the Latin community struggles with on screen representation. In an interview to NBC that Miranda said “When you feel like an outsider, you go, ‘Let me show you where I’m from.’” How can that be easily done with so little positive representation of the Latin community? 

In a study done by the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that analyzed 1,200 films from 2007 to 2018, it was shown that not only are Latinos severely underrepresented in media, but vastly stereotyped as well. 

Although the Latin community makes up about 25 percent of the frequent moviegoers for the annual box office results, for the past 12 years actors of Latin descent have only claimed about 4.5 percent of more than 47,000 speaking roles — only three percent of those were leads or co-leads.

If you were to look behind the camera, you would see the same study found that of the movies analyzed, only four percent of directors were Latino, with Latino producers coming in at three percent. As if the low numbers don’t show enough of a problem, let’s look at the fact that across 200 films from 2017 to 2018 alone, 24 percent of all Latino characters were depicted as criminals, specifically gang members and drug dealers.

Along with that, 13 percent were shown as currently poor or coming from a background of poverty. Jobs given to Latinos on screen consist largely of low income positions or positions of labor or personal service versus portraying them as educated individuals.  This goes to show that without more authentic Latin voices spearheading projects, the view of the Latin community can tend to be portrayed as inauthentic and in a potentially offensive way.

In 2019, NALIP director Ben Lopez said “Without executives pushing for more Latinos in the pipeline and green lighting more of our projects, we won’t advance.” Lopez also went on to state, “We’re missing the Latino attorney or astronaut as the hero.” Not only does “In The Heights” deliver that Latino hero we’ve been missing, but it makes that hero a normal, every day person who runs a mom-and-pop convenience store and lives paycheck to paycheck. 

At last, Miranda and Chu are delivering an upbeat, positive view of a Latin community to the world that’s easily accessible. Although this message was one Miranda started spreading in 2008 when the musical came out, it remained highly inaccessible to the audience it was intended to speak to. 

Now, instead of having to pay for a broadway ticket, people will be able to go to their local theater and see a more genuine version of the show: one where the story is not limited to the surface area of a stage, but the limitless possibilities of the big screen. 

Catch “In The Heights” at your local theater or stream it on HBO Max starting June 10, 2021. Diviértete viendo! 

Selena M. Lane

Selena is someone who fights to be a voice for the voiceless, a teller of truth and is an aspiring field journalist. Selena is also a DC Universe fanatic, with her favorite heroes being Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

3 Comments

  1. Wow! I already wanted to see this movie, but after reading this – now I have to. For the culture 😮‍💨

  2. Can’t wait to see the movie! This arrival really bring to light the real message of the musical! Great job😊

  3. The movie by itself seems very interesting but seeing how culturally impactful it is, I just HAVE to see it!

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