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Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures/In the Heights
Culture News and Entertainment

Authentic, Tear-Jerking & Joy-Inducing, ‘In the Heights’ Gets it Right

It took a few days for me to have a spare near two-and-a-half hours to sit down and give In the Heights my undivided attention. I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of this film, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Crazy Rich Asian‘s John Chu and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes for well over a year. I didn’t want to miss a single moment, a single nuance, and since I couldn’t make it to the movie theater on opening weekend, I had to wait until I was home and my two kids were sufficiently worn out to sit and watch the lengthy musical without too much interruption. It was worth the wait.

In the Heights was originally set to release in June 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic the film was pushed back an entire year, instead opening both in theaters and on streaming service HBO Max simultaneously for a four-day opening weekend on June 10. Despite all the buzz and the excitement of the Latinx community leading up to the release, the numbers weren’t great. In the Heights took the Number 2 spot at the box office for the weekend, earning $11 million and coming in behind A Quiet Place Part II which opened on Memorial Day weekend. Warner Media which owns HBO Max, has yet to release streaming numbers, but the film’s opening was expected to gross far more.

But that’s not what it’s about. Of course, film studios and filmmakers want to make money, but for the Latinx community, In the Heights is so much more than that. Within the first few minutes of the film, I was already choked up. The images, the faces, the colors, the sounds, reached into me and touched my Boricua soul. This movie is about us, and it’s for us, and even though it’s a big Hollywood production marketed toward a massive general audience, tiny details throughout the entire family, prove that at it’s core, In the Heights is a celebration of Latinos and of Caribbean people.

While the film differs in many ways from its Broadway predecessor, it maintains all the heart. When the camera enters Usnavi’s bodega, the depiction is so accurate, it almost felt like I was stepping back into my own childhood. Usnavi who is played by Puerto Rican Hamilton star Anthony Ramos, is known in his Washington Heights, New York barrio for his delicious coffee, and lining the shelves behind his register we see the ubiquitous Cafe Bustelo, but also the Cafe Caribe that we bought when we couldn’t afford Bustelo and the El Coqui that’s hard to find outside of Puerto Rico. We see the soda crackers and florecita cookies we all grew up on, and we see Usnavi’s “abuela” tell him to mix the café with condensed milk when the regular goes bad, just like our own mamis and abuelas taught us.

Throughout the entirety of the film, there are details just like that proving that the people behind this film are us. From the wardrobe styling and set design to song lyrics and choreography, everything about In the Heights screams Caribbean-Latinx pride. Not only that, but we are all represented in the film. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans play prominent roles, along with people with complexions in every shade of the rainbow just like we see on our islands and in our neighborhoods, and people of all shapes and sizes and body types. The representation is real and it’s profound. In fact, the film even offers nods to Latinos outside of the Caribbean at various times throughout. We are many, but we are one.

In the Heights is fun and joyful, but it also goes far beyond that. It tells our stories in ways that resonate and feel authentic. From Sonny’s (Gregory Diaz IV) immigration issues and DACA activism to Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) story of leaving Cuba for New York as a child, the film touches on so many different stories that permeate the Latinx lived experience, that we couldn’t help but feel seen. Like, truly seen for who we are now and where we’ve come from, which is truly celebrated through the film and especially in the performance of “Carnaval del Barrio”.

I sat and watched with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face, as the story of Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) unfolded, very much mirroring my own. She’s the one who made it out, the “trigueña” Puerto Rican girl who had the book smarts to be the first in her family to make it to college, the one who felt all the pressure of everyone’s expectations, the one who wasn’t sure if she could hack it. I was her. I’m still her. And Vanessa, (Melissa Barrera) when she struggled to find her own apartment because she didn’t have credit and she didn’t bother asking for help because she knew that no one she knew had the financial history or ability to co-sign for her, that was me too.

In the Heights truly touched all the bases. It tells our stories with accuracy and passion and tells America—and the world—that we are here and we are valuable and worthy and perhaps most importantly, that we will be seen. If you ask me, that’s a far bigger accomplishment than any amount of money at the box office. “P’arriba esa bandera; Alzala donde quiera; Recuerdo de mi tierra; Me acuerdo de mi tierra; Esa bonita bandera!”