In the Heights was marketed as the biggest thing ever for Latinx representation, the first by-us and for-us blockbuster. But it hasn’t really turned out that way, whether you look at the box office numbers or the discussion around the film. LatinaMedia.Co co-founders Cristina Escobar and Nicola Schulze are here to help you untangle what happened, appraise the film’s importance, and add a bit to the conversation.
NICOLA SCHULZE: I was pretty excited to watch In the Heights, it was going to be my first time watching a movie outside of my apartment since Covid-19. So my friend and I decided to do it big and go to a screening at AT&T Park, the home of Los Gigantes. And have to say there’s nothing like watching a movie with a large group of complete strangers – I missed it. I loved how weirdly everyone clapped after each song and cheered when any of the characters made out. It was lovely.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: That sounds amazing! I saw the film on my laptop, headphones in, my husband asleep next to me. It was not the ideal viewing experience. And because I am not a big musical person, I checked a couple of times to see how much more was left! I do think seeing it with Latinx folks hooting and hollering would have made the whole thing so much more fun. I remember making it through the Sex and the City movies that way (an electrified audience can carry you through so much!).
Even watching alone, I did appreciate how beautiful the film was. I loved the production choices around the songs – the pool, ‘Paciencia y Fe,’ the side of the building – I thought each was delightful, a representation of Latinx joy, our brightness, our pension for magical realism. It was exciting to see what they would do next, the scale, and the creativity of it all.
NICOLA SCHULZE: So true, the magical realism part at first felt a little weird for me but then I just channeled these five words: “What Would Isabel Allende Do,” and really loved it. Felt like a nice homage to our spiritual roots. And let’s face it, Lin-Manuel definitely knows how to write a catchy musical. Listening to all the songs reminded me of when my brother and I first heard the recording of the original production and how much we loved it. Music is such a big part of our culture and storytelling, I remembered how amazing it was to hear Spanglish in a Broadway production.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: That’s so powerful! And, we have to talk about the BIG problem with the use of color in the film, specifically, the lack of Blackness. Yes, of the four leads, two are Black but only one is Afro-Latinx (Leslie Grace) and she’s quite fair-skinned. The other two are just as light, giving the impression that there aren’t dark-skinned Latinx folks. People smarter than me already pointed this out but it bears repeating – The Heights is a Black neighborhood and if you’re going to center your film there, you should honor not the richness of the barrio’s culture but also the melanin of its people.
NICOLA SCHULZE: Agreed, it was jarring watching it. It honestly felt at times like they created a world for Black and Latinx people that was made by some sort of weird Disney diversity producer. The truth is having Afro-Latinx folks in the backgrounds or as dancers doesn’t count. It made the film feel sterile and so far from the people I envisioned when I listened to the musical as a teen. I also have to say another part of the film that really distracted me was the fact that both of the starring roles were played by thin Latinas. In some ways I get it, Hollywood does this all the time, choosing thin-bodied folks instead of fat ones for classic marketing reasons that are undeniably horrible. However, I was hoping to see women who looked like me, my mom, or my cousins, and less like Latina Barbies or Peloton instructors. I felt like it was like I time-traveled back to the 2000s where every Latina had the body of Jennifer Lopez or Carmen Diaz.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: The flaca-ness really bothered me too! Both female leads adhered to a white standard of beauty – light-skinned and TINY. Grace and Barrera are unquestionably gorgeous but their body types are not what we in the Latinx community usually idolize. We prefer a thicker, curvier, and generally more attainable look. In the Heights could have showcased that beauty instead of pushing the few curvier characters to the side (did Dasha Polanca do anything in this film except bounce?). I found it super frustrating and perhaps another clue that this film was made for White people after all…
NICOLA SCHULZE: I get it. I feel like we also have to talk about Lin-Manuel Miranda. For so long, he’s been our hero, considered a treasure by the many in the Latinx community. However, he missed the mark on this one and I think that’s okay to say. We should be allowed and encouraged to talk about it. I know it must not have been easy to be the only Latinx person writing on Broadway and he has done a lot to bring BIPOC folks into places we’ve been shut out of previously. But also with power and fame comes responsibility, and it’s our job to continue to push him to create great content that we feel represents our community, not just the ones that Hollywood finds marketable.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: Miranda is such an interesting figure. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and all that… The same could be said of Rita Moreno too I guess. We build up these figures and then knock them down. It’s like the Hollywood “It Girl” phenomena – too often we pretend there can only be one and that’s just so damaging. We need more Latinx creatives getting big chances and they can’t all be fair-skinned. It’s too much pressure on any handful of people and if it is that few, they’re never going to be able to represent the complexity of latinidad. Miranda has his particular aesthetic and it’s not for everyone, nor should it be. Of course, light Latinxs are going to mess up and I count myself in that camp. We don’t have the same experiences as Black Latinxs and shouldn’t be speaking for them. That said, I was relieved to see both Miranda and Rita Moreno’s apology. Here’s hoping we can all learn!
NICOLA SCHULZE: I am happy they apologized too. The reality is we have more work to do and we should view it as an opportunity, not a burden. Apologies are always tricky and there is definitely a science and a New York PR team behind each one a celebrity makes. But I do think a couple mistakes do not make you a villain, but also everyone, especially light Latinx folks should be held responsible. I hope this movie creates more space and inspires more Latinx folks to create films and television shows to tell more of our stories. We can’t keep having White people and White directors tell and control our narrative!
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: If In the Heights is a learning experience for Hollywood, I hope it’s that Latinx stories are beautiful, marketable, and specific. I know the film still has a ways to go to reach its income goal but I’d hardly call it a flop or a failure. More like an interesting addition to the cannon that needs so many more films of its budget. I guess the lesson here is that we need more In the Heights from a variety of Latinx perspectives and aesthetics, not less.