The film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights hit theaters on June 10, and it is the kind of production you just have to see on a big screen. The larger-than-life dance numbers, the bright colors, and upbeat music should be enough motivation to run to a movie theater near you, but in case it’s too soon for all that, it’s also available to stream on HBO Max. When I watched the movie a few months back, it was clear to me that the message of chasing dreams, love, hope, and community is exactly what people’s spirits need after a year filled with trauma, grief, and anxiety. The film was scheduled to arrive in 2020, but it wouldn’t have fit with the overall mood that the country and world were in at the time. Now In the Heights arrives at a moment when things are coming alive again, people are reuniting with their loved ones and trying to get back on their feet after a year that rocked so many people’s foundations.
The In the Heights musical premiered on Broadway in 2008, and for many Latinos, including the film’s star Anthony Ramos, it was the first time watching a show with a story that mirrored their own upbringing. The story follows the lives of people living in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights who are at a crossroads regarding their future. They are deciding between staying in New York or moving back to the Dominican Republic, going back to college or dropping out, or choosing whether or not to leave uptown for a new life downtown. The film centers around characters who are first-generation Americans or immigrants who planted roots in NYC in hopes of building a better life. This movie is a love letter to a neighborhood that breeds people who grow up proud of who they are and where they come from. No matter how deep their struggles are, there is happiness to be found on every corner. Even when people are dealing with gentrification, poverty, unemployment, and whatever personal hurdles they’re facing, their music is loud, the energy is high and a warm, comforting meal is always ready. Those aspects of the movie and the Heights won’t feel familiar to everyone, though, unless they’ve experienced it themselves. The cultural references could be too specific perhaps for a wider audience to fully comprehend or be moved by, but in the end, the movie was ultimately made for those who won’t need an explanation. The five to 10-minute long musical numbers might get exhausting at times, but stick with it—there’s magic to be found there.
In the Heights is likely to have a deep cultural impact, and the cast members were well aware of the responsibility of telling this story accurately and representing a neighborhood whose people and culture are so unique. The team was passionate about making a film that the fans of the musical would enjoy but also one that shows Hollywood what Latinos are capable of creating right inside their own neighborhoods when they’re given a chance. “We spent our summer on 175th street and Audubon. [Jon M. Chu] was committed to the authenticity of being in the neighborhood and really grounding us in the neighborhood you know, that I know, that we grew up and we love. But when it comes to the production also dreaming so big. This is a big movie musical. I think we’re so used to asking for less, ask to occupy space as Latinos, and Jon every step of the way was like, ‘No, this is a big movie, we’re allowed to go that big,” Miranda told Angie Martinez during a virtual trailer event in March. “I love it here, the whole thing is a love letter to this neighborhood that I think is incredible.” Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu helmed the movie and he brought the same colorful, eye-pleasing aesthetic to this film, while also showcasing the beauty of the areas of New York City we don’t often see. In the Heights is one of the biggest productions I’ve ever seen in regards to Latinx representation, and I do hope it continues to receive the amount of celebration and attention it has been getting so far. There’s no telling whether or not it will be decorated with trophies at next year’s award season, but if all it does is inspire the next Anthony Ramos to pursue acting, then it was a job well done.
‘In the Heights’ is an accurate depiction of the Latino experience in New York
Growing up in New York as a Latino is a unique experience. A Latino New Yorker carries a multitude of cultures, styles, accents, and stories inside of them everywhere they go. Their group of friends can contain people from all over the Caribbean and Central America down to the most southern tip of South America. They adopt different traditions, food, music, slang, and more, from each other as they go. The term “melting pot” is overused but it’s not wrong. Watching the cast sing “Carnaval del Barrio” as they waved their respective flags in the air felt surreal. Not every Latin American flag was shown, unfortunately, but seeing so many countries from Jamaica to Colombia to Venezuela represented in one of the biggest movies of the year was enough. The film focuses mostly on the Dominican-American and Caribbean experience but it’s overall a celebration and a tribute to the countless Latin communities that have taken shape in New York and how they come together to support and love one another, regardless of where they come from.
Spending much of 2020 in solitude helped a lot of people understand the value of having a community. That alienation is the constant reality for many people who move to a foreign land leaving all that is familiar to them behind in the rearview. It’s not easy to fend for yourself, knowing your loved ones are far from you—way further than a mere six feet. For some lucky people, moving here from other countries to communities like Washington Heights or Jackson Heights in Queens makes the transition so much easier. Those neighborhoods feel a lot like home, the food they love can be found down the block, and neighbors who look and talk just like them can be seen at every turn. Others aren’t as fortunate. Growing up in these diverse neighborhoods no doubt comes with its own troubles, but assimilating to a new life in the suburbs where no one speaks your language or understands you can be daunting. If only I knew communities like these existed in New York when I was growing up on Long Island. I wonder what it would have done for me to have a film, and a community, like this one when I was a child.