Since its release a week ago, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights has come under fire for a lack of Afro-Latinx representation in the film’s top-billed cast inciting claims of colorism in the Latinx community and in Hollywood. The topic was first broached when the actors who played the main characters in the musical, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Gregory Diaz IV and Corey Hawkins joined the film’s director John M. Chu for a video interview with The Root’s Afro-Cuban writer Felice León.
During the interview, León asked about the lack of Afro-Latinx actors especially considering the real-life majority presence of Afro-Latinxs in Washington Heights. Many viewers have pointed out it’s not at all representative of the people who actually live in Washington Heights, who are largely Afro-Dominican. The director’s and cast’s response received backlash for diminishing the issue.
“It’s definitely something we talked about and I needed to be educated about, of course,” Chu said. “In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people who were best for those roles specifically….I think it’s a really good conversation to have, it’s something we all should be talking about,” he said.
He’s since been criticized for basically admitting that they were aware of the lack of representation, but did not deem any of the Afro-Latinx actors who auditioned for the film good enough. But even more problematic was the response of Mexican actress Barrera who plays Vanessa in the film.
“In the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there. A lot of darker skinned people. And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent,” she said, essentially reinforcing what Chu said.
Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, initially did not comment on the simmering debate, but on Monday, the acclaimed songwriter and playwright took to Twitter with what’s largely been perceived as a heartfelt and sincere apology.
“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, 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,” 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 honoring our diverse and vibrant community,” he said.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) June 14, 2021
And well, that’s exactly it. Miranda, screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes and director Chu have brought something to Hollywood that we’ve literally never seen before. An almost all-Latinx leading cast, Spanglish dialogue and music and the kind of nuances and details that only the people the film is meant to represent will catch on to. They’ve brought our heritage, our culture and our experiences to many viewers who never knew anything about us, other than that we’re “Spanish.”
While there’s work to be done and the conversation about Afro-Latinx representation in Hollywood is incredibly important, we can’t villainize the people trying to tell our stories to a general audience. The people who are ethnic minorities who have busted their butts to make it in Hollywood so they could change the stories and faces we see on our movie and TV screens so they represent us better. We have to remember that change doesn’t happen all at once, and In the Heights, is literally the only film that we’ve ever seen like this.
This isn’t just about colorism within the Latinx community. This is about the Hollywood community too, and while we’ve been having this conversation as Latinos for a long time and should be better than making such oversights by now, for Hollywood it’s just the beginning, not the end. And you better believe that if we don’t support it in droves, Hollywood will chop our people down quicker than you can say wepa!
The success of In the Heights will open doors for Afro-Latinx performers and while we need to continue having this conversation, we should be doing it with an open mind and without harsh judgement of the few creators among the many who are working to represent us. Who knows, maybe some of those many darker skinned extras that are in the film will one day nab a leading role in a Hollywood film because they danced in this musical about Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Hollywood has proven again and again that they’re not ready for us, but now they have to see us.