In the Heights, but where is the history?

In the Heights is a film adaption from the same-name musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who later produced the famous Hamilton musical. Released in 2021, the movie is directed by Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, and the story focuses on the Latino community in Washington Heights, Manhattan, which is one of the largest Latino immigrant communities in the US.

Despite its extraordinary crew and critical recognitions, the movie landed with a box office of 43 million in contrast to its 55 million budgets. Major criticism from the audience included underrepresentation of the Afro-Latino residents, and less-than-catchy tunes. The casting issue is straightforward and the latter one we will leave to the interest of music theory experts. Here we will be discussing the “catchiness” of the characters in the movie, since the plot of this piece arises from the characters, and choreography and lines will be fixed in no time once the plot and character designs are in proper place.

The movie starts with a walkthrough of the Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights(“In the Heights”). By all the residents singing the same verse repeatedly, audiences are presented with the picture of a small and close community sharing many values. Then the lens center in on individual characters and their personal “suenito”, or small dreams.

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In the Heights movie poster. From left: Venessa, Usnavi, Nina, Benny

Usnavi, who got his characteristic name from the first thing his parents saw landing in the US, is a second-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic running a corner store or bodega, and wants to go back to the DR to revive his late father’s business. Vanessa, to whom Usnavi seems to have a feeling for, is currently working in a beauty salon but wishes to be a fashion designer downtown. Nina, who has brought honor to the neighborhood as a Stanford admittee, is already dropping out in Freshman year due to unbearable racism at school and not wanting to end her father’s business for her expensive tuition. Benny is an employee at Nina’s father’s company, and is looking for a second chance on Nina.

In The Heights: The 10 Best Performances From The Cast Ranked By  Cinematography
The blackout in the movie was based from the actual power failure that happened in 1999(Wikipedia).

While the characters’ individual struggles are common ones in the immigrant population, they are also being shrouded by larger-scale problems to the community such as gentrification and ethnic conflicts. What I felt when watching the movie is that the storyline switches so often among the characters and their problems that I didn’t have the chance to sympathize or contemplate on any of them. It felt like the writer wanted to cover the entire immigrants checklist and ran out of space to go into details with the movie already being 2 hours 22 minutes. Every character is given a personal goal, but the goals were just there from the beginning, and we don’t know why they had those goals.

For example, we don’t exactly know why Usnavi, who spent most of his lifetime in Washington Heights, wanted to inherit his father’s pub in DR long after his father died——he was not even sad when seeing the place he grew up in got wrecked by a hurricane; nor do we know why Vanessa was interested in high fashion and how she became the talented artist as portrayed in the movie——but we do know that she was not very determined in that dream as in the end she gives up her downtown life to be with her boyfriend (*rolls eyes*).

Why the 'In The Heights' Movie Changed the Broadway Show's Ending
Vanessa and Usnavi(I did not realize they were the main couple until the second half)

Nina, whose romantic relationship with Benny was the only one that made sense in the movie, was struggling about whether to continue her education at Stanford. As a student in an American university, I feel that the racial discriminations mentioned in the movie (of Nina being searched when her roommate is missing valuables was because of her race in the first place) are at least a decade away from the present, and universities now are doing great at including students from all backgrounds. I am not saying that racial discrimination does not exist at all, but that they should have come up with a better example (I had been an Asian in a mostly-white school, I know what I am talking about). Even if the racial discrimination made sense, it would still not have been a satisfying motive for Nina dropping out of Stanford (she told her dad that the racial discrimination, not economic difficulties, was the real reason she wanted to drop out), unless the writers wanted to depict her as wanting to stay in her comfortable enclosed community without facing the real world, which would not have been a likable trait.

Nonetheless, there was one line in Nina’s story that caught my attention. When Nina was mistaken as the server at the donors’ party, she said that the non-white servers looked at her with the what-side-is-she-on face. Whether purposefully or not, this line put forth the ethnic identity issues and the expectation to take a side that multicultural individuals face every day, especially if their home country and the country of residence are not in the best relationship (I am from China and living in the US, ehem). Again, the problem was over in the movie before any discussion or a second mention.

In contrast to the main characters, the side characters seemed to have more of a personal history and thus motives. For example, Nina’s dad wanted Nina to stay at Stanford because she now has the opportunity of education that was taken away from him. This is personally relatable to me as my mother was accepted by Johns Hopkins University 30 years ago but was not able to go because her visa application was rejected, and now I am at a university in the US to continue the dreams of both her and myself. The point is, everyone lives with the history of their family and their culture, although definitely not by reciting one’s ethnic history in a gossip session like that by the salon ladies in the movie.

How 'In the Heights' pulled off subway song 'Pacienda y Fe' - Los Angeles  Times
The brilliant staging using the NY metro in Abuela’s number “Paciencia y Fe”, after which she rested eternally. This is the only number in the movie that I want to watch multiple times.

The memorable number of Abuela, the grandma of the neighborhood, tells her life story as a child growing up in poverty in Cuba, coming to the US with her Mama to find jobs, and working low-income job while people looked down at them. Knowing from the movie that she is now economically stable and has a big found family that cares for her, her line “Mama what do you do when your dreams come true?” shook me. As mentioned before, I myself as well as many immigrants inherit our dreams from the previous generation, and it is easy to lose ourselves under the heavy weights of family and cultural history, one mental struggle many immigrants face but is overlooked in the movie. The death of Abuela was the emotional climax of the movie because she connected all the characters and the community together, but the emotion did not linger as the story quickly moved on again.

In the Heights was a good attempt at giving its audience a picture of the underrepresented Latino community and immigrants. However, it only brushes on the surface of their life and difficulties despite its message of “small dreams” and “asserting dignity in small ways”. Miranda’s later work, Hamilton, was much more a success with its ready-made characters and motives from history, contrasting to the shortcomings in original character design of this piece, and its absence of personal, family, and cultural history.