In the Heights: Representation Done Right


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…

You Got It Salute GIF by In The Heights Movie

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.

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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 😭😭).

Jack-yll and Hyde?

Disney’s 2017 rendition of Newsies: The Broadway Musical!, directed by Jeff Calhoun, seems to captivate its audience and pull each spectator in many different, creative directions. Some strong feelings have been assigned accordingly surrounding the ideas of gender and sexuality when further investigating the role that Jack Kelly plays within the musical. Jack Kelly’s character and portrayal investigates the duality of masculinity, and in doing so, both reinforce and broaden the masculine male stereotype. While possibly not the model musical for progressive gender and sexuality ideals, Newsies begins to break the barriers of “previously understood” masculinity in the context of this time period while reconstructing Jack’s role as a stereotypical male leader.

Let’s start from the beginning. This production was created to encompass the true events of newsies in 1899 through musical form. I don’t know much about 1899 except for the fact that this was the year Al Capone was born and also during a time period when masculinity had a definitive reputation — Ya know, the aggressive, big muscled, confident, independent, and assertive, dashing young man type. There we go, I just described Jack Kelly…well, the “masculine” side of Jack Kelly.

Let’s address Jack Kelly’s “strong” masculine side. Within the first 6 minutes of the musical, we see him approach Katherine in a charming, confident manner in an attempt to flirt with her. Although we quickly see Katherine shut this down, Jack’s masculine side is slightly more revealed to viewers as he is not afraid to go for what he wants (assertiveness ✔). We also get the same sense from his environment and his actions. His New York accent subtly reinforces the idea of brashness and aggressiveness. This is also revealed in how he interacts with Pulitzer and the rest of his crew. When the newsies are disrespected, Jack springs into action to be their protector (✔) as they work to form a union. Within the newsies, he interacts with the others by bumping into each other and playfully hitting each other like guys do (tough love ✔). In addition to the shouting, grunting, and yelling embedded in the choreography and vocals, Jack’s body language and dance style is combative in nature at times (aggressive ✔). We specifically see this in the fight scene involving Pulitzer’s two men that sell the newspapers.

OK, I know it sounds like I’ve been really laying it down on Jack and his strong masculinity, but the importance of this post is to capitalize on the duality of masculinity and how men, specifically leaders, are “supposed to act” according to society’s standards. While we see the tough guy act from Jack often, there are numerous times we see the “softer” side of his masculinity; sometimes, we even see both at the same time. We begin to see this benevolence in the very beginning with the rest of the newsies. Jack is informally established as their leader and takes care of the group even though he’s an orphan himself (care taker ✔). He even takes the worst sleeping spot so the other newsies can sleep a bit more comfortably (humility ✔). He also sings with Crutchie about his dreams of leaving New York City in “Santa Fe” and living out the dreams he has for himself there. Here is the big kicker, are you ready? Jack is also an artist (a softy with a creative side ✔). He loves to draw and paint and has established a relationship with Medda, a vaudeville performer. She lets Jack paint backdrops for the theatre in exchange for protection against Snyder and the refuge. It’s very clear throughout the musical that Jack has a soft spot for his friends and especially for Katherine, whom he gets all flirty and gushy for (emotional ✔).

There are numerous instances throughout the musical in which we see the duality of masculinity present in Jack Kelly’s character. In addition, it’s imperative to investigate the role the musical plays in showcasing the blend between the stereotypical man and the role a male leader plays in society. Within Newsies, we can quickly identify Pulitzer as being the ideal “male leader” of this time, a stereotypically strong man with an abuse of power problem. While we also see Jack as the leader of the newsies, it’s clear these two characters display leadership in two very different contexts. We see this even during the distribution of newspapers for each new day; Pulitzer’s men, while not even in a seemingly large position of power, look down on Jack and make him out to be less than them. Through this, we can see the outdated form of masculinity clashing with the new. Jack, himself, experiences a duality of masculinity in which the “old” has a time and place, and the “new” paves the way for a dually soft but strong leadership approach.

During this time period, men in power seemed to be of the utmost masculinity. They were deemed strong, aggressive, assertive, and unafraid to fight. They were the ones who could provide and had the most influence. However, we see throughout the musical that while Jack did not have this stereotypical masculine leadership, he arguably had more influence than the ones in “power.”

While Disney’s Newsies typically gets a bad reputation for reinforcing the most basic gender stereotypes, a closer look at this musical shows just how keen the writers and directors were to begin a societal push for the duality of masculinity in male leadership. Thankfully, it is our normal. In our society now, we have this idea of our leaders being  more approachable and better listeners, as well as decisive and confident. Overall, while it may not be the most progressive model for gender stereotypes, Newsies begins to crack the barriers of strong masculinity within established gender stereotypes, and does a pretty good job at it, especially for its time. And hey, who doesn’t like Jeremy Jordan?