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heights-in-the-colorism.jpeg

We Need To Talk About 'In The Heights' And Its Issues With Colorism

By Brian Richards | Social Media | June 15, 2021 |

By Brian Richards | Social Media | June 15, 2021 |


heights-in-the-colorism.jpeg

This past weekend, In The Heights, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony and Grammy award-winning musical of the same name, opened in theaters and began streaming on HBO Max. Almost all of the reviews have been positive, it received a Cinemascore rating of “A” from audiences, and it has reminded many people of how nice it is to have movie musicals, particularly those with actors who can actually sing and dance.

The film’s release, however, has experienced a couple of obstacles: First, the opening weekend box-office is considered by some experts to be a disappointment, as In The Heights was expected to open at $20 million, but instead opened at $11.4 million in the #2 spot behind A Quiet Place Part II. This was a surprise to many, considering how great the marketing and word-of-mouth has been for the film, but it was also pointed out that In The Heights opened in theaters during a worldwide pandemic that shut down movie theaters, has caused most of said theaters to operate at limited capacity upon re-opening, and is still dealing with people who still feel nervous about setting foot in public venues such as movie theaters, and who feel much more comfortable staying home (and watching In The Heights on HBO Max) instead.

The other obstacle that In The Heights has been dealing with is one that has gotten a lot of exposure and has been talked about constantly on social media. Last Wednesday, Felice León of The Root interviewed the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, as well as several cast members (Melissa Barrera, Gregory Diaz IV, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins), and asked them all about the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx in the film. Which led to things getting very, very, very awkward.

Yeah.

Yeah.

It’s hard to watch that video (mostly because it really is that cringy and awkward), and not walk away feeling like this after hearing what was said…

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This is not the first time that Jon M. Chu has been called out for issues of colorism in his work. His previous film, Crazy Rich Asians, was accused of featuring only East Asian actors with light complexion in the lead roles, whereas South Asian actors with darker skin tones were relegated to playing servants in the background. As well as the fact that Brenda Song claims that when she auditioned for the film, she was told that she wasn’t Asian enough, though Chu said that this was untrue. And then there was his film version of Jem And The Holograms, which also dealt with backlash when Aurora Perrineau was cast to play Shana, bass player for the Holograms and the only Black character on the show, despite the fact that Shana was originally dark-skinned with an Afro and Perrineau is lighter-skinned with straight hair in comparison.

This is also not the first time that Lin-Manuel Miranda has been called out for his own work. There have been questions and concerns about In The Heights and the colorism in its casting decisions going back to when it was originally performed on stage, there have been complaints about the casting in Hamilton now that most people are no longer infatuated with it like they were at the height of its popularity, and those same people are now questioning why a Broadway musical with corny Schoolhouse Rock-type rap lyrics meant to appeal to White people (their words, not mine) had to be cast with Black people playing slave-owning Presidents on stage in the first place.

Then there is the swimming pool scene as the cast performs the song “96,000.” As beautifully filmed and choreographed as it was, there was one person on TikTok who couldn’t help but notice that something about this performance was…off.

The discourse only grew from there, with people on social media asking plenty of questions about In The Heights and the people who made it, such as: Why wasn’t Jharrel Jerome (who is Dominican-American and identifies as Afro-Latino, and who just won an Emmy for his performance in When They See Us) cast to play Usnavi instead of Anthony Ramos, especially since he already played Usnavi back when he was in high school? Why wasn’t Gina Torres (who is Cuban-American and identifies as Afro-Latina, who is considered an absolute goddess by many of her fans, and who has had plenty to say about the kind of Latinos that Hollywood wants to hire and see onscreen) hired to play Camila, Kevin’s wife and Nina’s mother, instead of simply killing the character off? Why was the “Kevin being anti-Black towards Benny and not thinking that he’s good enough for Nina because he isn’t Latino” storyline removed from the story altogether, especially since it touched upon how anti-Blackness in many Latino communities exists and how prevalent it is?

And anyone who has visited Washington Heights or lived in Washington Heights knows how diverse it is, how the majority of people who reside there are mostly Black, Dominican, and Afro-Latino (and mostly dark-skinned), and how Washington Heights in real life looks nothing at all like the set of a television show on The CW.

Some people on Twitter have also asked why the cast members, who don’t work in the casting department and who have nothing to do with the actors hired to appear in a film, were the ones having their feet put to the fire in being asked about Afro-Latinx representation. Granted, most of their answers weren’t great, especially with Barrera going with the oh-so-tired “We had people of all races audition for the roles, but the roles just ended up going to the best actors” which once again implies that the only actors who are deserving of opportunities are those who are light-skinned and fit the “But Not Too Black” TV Trope. But if there’s anyone who should be answering these questions and giving their input, it’s not just Jon M. Chu, or the film’s White casting directors, Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey, but Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, who said nothing about this backlash, and only went on Twitter to promote his next project, a film adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s musical Tick Tick Boom, starring Andrew Garfield.

But the discourse became far too loud for Lin-Manuel to ignore any longer, and he tweeted this on Monday evening:

If you scroll through Twitter and read the ongoing discourse about In The Heights, you’ll see that it’s still going strong and still just as heated.

Some of it is focused on Hollywood getting deservedly called out for colorism in film and on television, and for only wanting to hire dark-skinned actors when they need villains or characters that suffer traumatic fates onscreen, such as playing slaves. (That being said, I’ve been on Twitter for so long that I also know that colorism is one of many topics which cannot be discussed with anything resembling nuance, simply because you can’t discuss something this complicated in only 280 characters, and also because nuance is often a rarity on that hellmouth of an app.)

Some of it is just a prime opportunity for others to continue dunking on Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was once seen by all as a brilliant wunderkind who could do no wrong and who, like many celebrities, has fallen off of the pedestal that social media placed him on in the first place and is now their punching bag.

Others don’t see what the big deal is, who think that In The Heights is just fine the way it is, and who think that the video interview/article by The Root is a hit job orchestrated against the film by Black people acting like SJWs (despite the fact that León herself identifies as African-American of Cuban descent) and insisting that they need to be included and involved in everything, even though they didn’t like it when people were trying to rain on their parades and ask why they weren’t offered a seat at the table when it came to being seen in Black Panther.

And then there are those who will either watch In The Heights on HBO Max out of curiosity because they haven’t seen it yet, or because they want to hate-watch it so they can find more reasons and ways to dunk on both Lin-Manuel and the film itself (even though all they’d be doing is increasing its streaming numbers and making studio heads happy, much like when everyone was hate-watching Emily In Paris and made its streaming numbers so good that it got renewed for Season 2).

There are also people who, regardless of how they or anyone else feels about In The Heights, who are hoping that this isn’t the last time we all feel the need to discuss Latinos in film as well as their representation. And this very useful Twitter thread by film critic Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film on Twitter) suggested some films made by Latinos and made about Latinos that are just as deserving of attention.

Yes, that’s a lot to scroll through, but if more Latino representation onscreen is what you’re been looking for and demanding, you now have very few excuses to check these films out, and at least see for yourself if any of them are your particular brand of whiskey.

As for In The Heights, time will tell if the film continues getting more attention for its issues of colorism as well as its quality, if it grows legs at the box-office like The Greatest Showman while also helping bring more audiences back to movie theaters, and if Lin-Manuel Miranda will be a man of his word when it comes to making sure that the casting decisions for his future projects don’t involve any colorism or erasure. But right now, even Marie Kondo would shake her head in disbelief at how messy all of this is.

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Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



Image sources (in order of posting): Warner Bros., HBO Max