One word. Wow…
My first interaction with the film, In the Heights, was actually when Nicole, my classmate, showed me the first eight minutes of the musical before it was released onto streaming platforms. From that moment, I was hooked but didn’t yet see it in its entirety — that is until we watched it for class during our module about ethnicity and immigrant stories.
The musical/drama film directed by Jon M. Chu and co-produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes is the 2021 film rendition of the Broadway musical bearing the same name. The Broadway musical, co-written by Miranda and Hudes, first premiered in 2008 and received a whopping 13 Tony Award nominations (winning 4 out of the 13 noms). So, obviously, why wouldn’t they turn it into a musical film?
It is safe to say this film has my heart.
Within the first 30 minutes, I was captivated by the personal stories of some of the main characters, Usnanvi and Nina. What’s so enchanting about this film rendition is its reflection of representation as illustrated by the plot of both the stage production and film. The casting for this film reflects a large Latinx population, aiming to rectify the lack of representation the Latinx community has faced in Hollywood for many years (finally!). Not only does the plot and casting of the film contribute to this representation, but it also reigns victorious in choreography, musical numbers, cinematography, and the American Dream as understood in this film to be far from cultural assimilation but rather multiculturalism.
Let’s get into it…
The ethnic representation through this film is one that should serve as a role model to others and is exacerbated by the widely present themes of community and perseverance. It is evident the community in Washington Heights, New York, is nothing short of close-knit — a family if you will. For example, Usnavi’s abuela is a staple in this community, continuously hosting her friends and family for weekly dinner gatherings (when she died, it took me three business days to get over it). In addition, it seems this familial connection in the film was a genuine reflection of the comradery among the cast members while filming. For example, in a Zoom interview, Leslie Grace (who plays Nina) speaks on this comradery by stating: “We all built such a tight bond over that summer. That summer changed our lives; now we talk everyday.” In discussing the casting for this film, it is also important to note the prevalence of misrepresentation of minority groups over the years. According to USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative survey, “just 7% of major films in 2019 featured a lead Hispanic or Latino actor…” Thankfully, In the Heights has been an exception. To give some context from the greater world of musical productions surrounding minority groups, a New York Times article shares that some members of the production crew from the film West Side Story admitted they had never even met a Puerto Rican or even spent the time to sit down with them before writing the movie (Huh? Make it make sense…) In contrast, In the Heights worked diligently to cast actors that were personally tied to the experiences of the characters in which they played. The film is also not afraid to call out this very realistic lack of representation — we see this through Nina’s character during her first year at Stanford as she is misunderstood for part of the serving staff at a donor event. She walks the fine line between fitting in with her peers at school and her community that is reflected among the other members of the serving staff. The film displays this representation in such a way that I felt as though I had a sneak peek into the identity crisis Nina was facing.
Can we also just talk about the choreography for a second? I don’t think anything will ever top the choreography that is seen in the number “96,000” as performed around the community pool in Washington Heights. Here, take a look for yourself.
This scene itself adds so much depth to the film, considering the amount of people involved in the number. Additionally, we get a sneak peak into the unique personalities of each character, specifically as they envision what life they would have if they won the $96,000. We’ve seen ethnic representation in terms of casting, but now we’ve also seen the way in which choreography should be represented through this one scene. In case you need more evidence, check out the “Carnaval Del Barrio” scene where the community gathers in an alleyway to share grief over abuela’s passing and complaints about the hot New York summer without air conditioning. Within the choreography, the cast members are boundless and take up a substantial amount of space, moving their bodies in such a way that feeds them power — giving them the agency they have lacked for so long (especially in Hollywood). Their separate nationality groups are also displayed by the different dance styles and flags displayed in windows during the number. The choreography adds a strong component to the representation illustrated by this film.
Similarly, the song representation is among the most dynamic in a musical film that I have experienced thus far. The intro song, “In the Heights” performed by Anthony Ramos (Usnavi) includes a unique mix of singing and rapping, displaying the talent Ramos has as a performer. The storytelling piece is more than evident and gives viewers a deep look into the lives of the community in Washing Heights (I feel like I know everything about these people within the first five minutes of the film). Additionally, there are many other songs in which a large segment of the number is performed in Spanish, further adding onto the representation piece. It was clear to me just how passionate the cast members were within the musical numbers as is mirrored by the personal stories and experiences they have shared.
Just as I thought it couldn’t get any better, the cinematography proved me wrong. Give that person a raise, am I right? The way the film reflects the plot line in such a way the Broadway stage could not certainly grabs more of my attention (as I’m sure it does others). Specifically, the “96,000” scene comes to mind again when Usnavi, Benny, Sonny, and Pete are headed to the pool. The magical realism in this scene helps to encapsulate the unique personalities and experiences of each of them.
This can be seen again in the salon with the wigs.
The cinematography adds a whole other component to the representation piece and pulled me in as a viewer as I fell down a deeper hole of captivation. I was further drawn to the storytelling technique displayed in the cinematography as Usnavi jumps back and forth between the past and present, sharing his experiences with his future daughter and other children in the neighborhood.
Lastly, I find it important to highlight the ways In the Heights celebrates cultural differences in such a way that avoids cultural assimilation, and I think a lot of future productions can benefit from this example. The film celebrates the American Dream in a way that is different for each character. For Usnavi, as seen and heard in the number “In the Heights,” he sings of missing the Dominican Republic, admitting he hadn’t revisited since his parents passed away. He also owns a bodega on the corner — the place that just happens to be the one stop shop for everyone in the neighborhood and the same place that sells the winning lottery ticket. I’m still crying over his abuela leaving him the winning ticket (contact me in another three business days). The members of this community fly their flags proudly and celebrate the lives and successes of other people in the community. For example, they rally behind Nina who was the first person to make it to college from their community. Nina’s father, Kevin, is the typical overprotective father who keeps pushing Nina to succeed and represent herself proudly at school. Everyone else in the Heights is proud of her. It is refreshing to watch a musical in which differences are celebrated, not destroyed. This film gave a new definition to the American Dream.
In the Heights is the type of production that has something for everyone. It’s the type of musical that consistently had my eyes welling up with tears, and while I could not personally understand the character’s circumstances, I felt drawn to them on an intimate level. Additionally, it had just the right amount of romantic relationships without engulfing the significance of the film’s message (because God knows we need more films centered around gushy love interests, am I right?). Not only is it a fun, feel-good 2 hours and 23 minutes, it also sets the stage for ethnic representation, and one in which many productions should follow. It is important for the greater context of the lack of representation of minority groups, specifically in Hollywood films. The way the film represents this population through multiple mediums such as choreography and lyrics makes it excel to the number one choice for me. It sets a precedent for how minority groups should be accurately represented and their talents displayed.
Now, if you need me, I will be watching this on repeat probably forever (skipping abuela’s death of course 😭😭).