In the Heights Receives Backlash for Lack of Afro-Latinx Representation in Film

The director and a few cast members from In the Heights were interviewed about the exclusion of the Afro-Latinx community. However, their responses didn't sit right with many online users.

By Alyssa Morin Jun 14, 2021 12:33 AMTags
Watch: Lin-Manuel Miranda Responds to "Hamilton" Criticism

Not everyone is raving over the new In the Heights movie.

The film, which originally debuted as a Broadway musical in 2008 with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, has raised eyebrows for its lack of Afro-Latinx representation.

When confronted with this criticism during an interview with The Root's Felice León on Wednesday, June 9, director Jon M. Chu said it was something "I needed to be educated about."

"In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get people who were best for those roles," he continued, adding, "But I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin. I think that's a really good conversation to have, something that we should all be talking about."

Jon noted that the background dancers were diverse, to which The Root journalist replied, "Those are roles that, historically, we've been able to fill. We've been able to be the dancers, we've been able to be in the hair salons...but, like, a lead? That's the breakthrough."

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She continued, "We want to see Black people In the Heights. We wanna see Afro-Panamanians, Black Cubans, Black Dominicans. That's what we want to see. That's what we were yearning for and hoping for."

The director responded, "I hope that encourages more people to tell more stories, and get out there and do it right then."

Warner Bros. Pictures

Leslie Grace, who is Dominican-American and plays Nina in the musical, also touched on the subject, as well as the importance of inclusion, with The Root.

"I didn't realize until making this movie that I didn't really get to see myself or people that looked like my siblings, that are darker than me, onscreen," she told Felice. "And I didn't realize how much that affected the limitations that I put on myself—being someone who wanted to be an artist, an actress and even be in the Latin music industry being Afro-Latina."

"I feel so blessed that we get to express the diversity that is within the Latinx community in a way that we haven't been able to see onscreen," she added. "I hope that this is cracking that glass ceiling. Because I do hope to see my brothers and sisters that are darker than me lead these movies."

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures

Melissa Barrera, who is Mexican and plays Vanessa, shared her take on the film's lack of diversity.

"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," she said, referencing the casting decisions that were made. "For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent...I think we are all very much like our characters, so much so that a lot of times it didn't even feel like we were acting."

She further explained, "And because the cast ended up being us, and Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like."

Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock

Following The Root interview, which went viral on Twitter over the weekend, many expressed their disappointment over some of the cast and director's responses.

"'There were afro latinx people in the auditions but they chose us cause we fit the roles better' really? No one else could play your role?" one Twitter user wrote. "'There were black dancers though! You didn't see them?' We did we just saw no leads.'"

Another echoed similar sentiments, sharing, "'Black Latinx ppl showed up to the audition but none of them were good enough to get a leading role' is actually probably the worst excuse someone could give for colorism (which there's obviously no valid excuse for)."

"Saying that there were plenty of darker skinned Latinx people at auditions, and none got casted for leading roles because they picked actors who 'embodied what they were looking for' is very yikes," someone else added.

While some have critiqued the movie, others sang its praises. Actress Ashley Nicole Black wrote, "When I saw In The Heights on Broadway, it redefined for me what theatre could do. It felt like everyone in the theatre was on the same page, all a part of the show, like it was a black box or something. I wondered if they could bring that feeling to a movie theater. They did."

"Just watched #InTheHeightsMovie. This is a BIG movie that speaks for all of us. So proud!!!" Jorge Ramos shared, with director Carly Usdin adding, "in the heights was the perfect film for my first time in a movie theatre in 16 months, made me remember what's so magical about the film in the first place."

Although Lin-Manuel wasn't interviewed by The Root, he did address the musical's representation when speaking to Vox on Thursday, June 10.

"It's unfair to put any kind of undue burden of representation on In the Heights," he told the outlet. "There are so many millions of stories—there's a song in Heights called 'Hundreds of Stories,' but there's millions of stories—from the cultural specificities of the Puerto Rican American experience, the Dominican American experience, the Cuban American experience, and we couldn't get our arms around all of that."

At this time, Leslie, Melissa, Jon and Lin-Manuel haven't publicly commented on the movie's recent backlash. Neither have any of the other main stars of the film, including Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits, to name a few.

Additionally, E! News has reached out to reps for the cast members interviewed by The Root, as well as Lin-Manuel, Jon and Warner Bros. Studios for comment. We have yet to receive a response.

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