Lin-Manuel Miranda is often praised for giving a platform to underrepresented communities, especially thanks to his award-winning musical Hamilton in which he imagined the Founding Fathers of America as Black and Latinx.
Likewise, his Tony-winning Broadway show In the Heights has been lauded as an important turning point in the positive representation of the Latinx community and the important stories they have to tell.
However, since the film adaptation of the beloved musical was released, it has received backlash for leaving out members of the Afro-Latinx community that make up a huge contingent of Washington Heights — the New York neighbourhood where the story is set.
“While there are a few Black Latinx actors featured in the cast, it would have been much more impactful if they were cast as leads; the main characters are basically a group of light-skinned Latinx actors,” POPSUGAR‘s Monica Sisavat wrote in an op-ed.
“Not to mention, the lack of Black representation – in a movie that is based on a neighbourhood that is predominantly Black Latinx – is especially blaring.”
It was a feeling that was echoed by critics and moviegoers alike, with The Root‘s Felice León asking director Jon M. Chu and actors Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace and Gregory Diaz IV, “What would you say to folks who say that In the Heights privileges white-passing and light-skinned Latinx people?”
Chu, whose 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians marked the first major Hollywood studio film to feature a majority cast of Chinese descent in a modern setting since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, conceded that it was a fair conversation to have and said, “I hope that encourages more people to tell more stories and get out there and do it right. We tried our best on all fronts of it.”
Grace, who plays Nina Rosario in the film and represents the only Afro-Latina in the main cast, said: “I didn’t realise until making this movie that I didn’t really get to see myself or people that look like my siblings that are darker than me onscreen.
“So many times we’re put on-screen in one particular way, and since we get so little opportunities, everyone wants to claim that one story because it’s all we’ve got.”
Added Barrera, who plays Vanessa, “In the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there. A lot of darker-skinned people. They were looking for just the right people for the roles, for the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent.”
“I started writing In the Heights because I didn’t feel seen,” he began.
‘And over the past 20 years, all I wanted was for us – ALL of us – to feel seen.
“I’m seeing the discussion around Afro-Latino representation in our film this weekend and it is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it, particularly among the leading roles.
“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colourism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback. I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.
“In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry.”
Miranda concluded his note by revealing that he is listening to the feedback that has been raised and that he is “trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings.’
“Thanks for your honest feedback,” he wrote. “I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honouring our diverse and vibrant community.”
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) June 14, 2021
One person who has already been vocal in their defence of Miranda was Rita Moreno — the award-winning actress who played Anita in the original West Side Story — who addressed the controversy during an interview with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show.
“You can never do right, it seems,” Moreno, who is Puerto Rican argued. “This is the man who literally has brought Latino-ness and Puerto Rican-ness to America. I couldn’t do it. I would love to say I did, but I couldn’t. Lin-Manuel has done that really singlehandedly, and I’m thrilled to pieces and I’m proud that he produced my documentary [Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It].
“I mean, they’re really attacking the wrong person.”
In the Heights lands in Hoyts Cinemas on June 24th, with advance screenings now showing.