‘In the Heights’: The Must-See Latin Film of the Year

in Movies/TV by

When was the last time you saw a pot full of ropa vieja bubbling on top of a kitchen stove? Or for that matter, one full of black beans? Or a close-up of a bottle of Vick’s Vaporub, or a pack of Café Bustelo? Or a father proudly tell his daughter in Spanish with English subtitles: “Tú eres boricua”? Or friends playing dominó on the street?

If your answer is “never” or “can’t recall” or “don’t think I have,” now you know why representation across all media and cultural expressions matter. 

The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and John M. Chu’s wonderful big screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2008 Tony-winning musical In the Heights is full of them. But representation is not only about getting such little details right. It is most importantly about who is portrayed on screen, how, and by whom. If there were a Bechdel test for Latino and minority representation in the big and small screens, In the Heights would pass it with flying colors.

In the Heights was the film I was most looking forward to last year. When the first trailer came out in December 2019, you couldn’t help but feel pride and joy at the exuberant explosion of colors, movement and dialogue, of seeing our culture, our people, our streets, our neighborhoods, come to life. It felt like the perfect vaccine against the four years of anti-Latino sentiment that permeated the presidency of one orange-hued attention-seeking demagogue. The trailer not only gave us a cheerful, moving taste of the whole film, it also promised one of the many bright lights at the end of the proverbial dark tunnel.

And then COVID-19 struck.

Most of us went into lockdown, canceling trips to visit our loved ones in our homelands—or wherever they now call home—in part because most of them are among the most vulnerable health- and age-wise, and because it was the right thing to do. We Zoomed, texted, phone called and video chatted with each other; saw concerts, movies and plays virtually. We tried as best we could to maintain a semblance of our traditions at home with our inner circle. No hugs and kisses—and we latinoamericanos are a huggy-kissy people.

The release of In the Heights, like many films scheduled for last year, was postponed. And rightly so, for In the Heights is a film that screams to be enjoyed with a community, in a big crowd cheering and weeping and talking to the screen and dancing in the aisles and even waving our flags.

I expected the film to hit me hard when I attended a press screening last month. It left me a wreck when it was over. In the Heights is more than a celebration of a community being torn apart by the forces of gentrification. It is, in these pandemic times, a celebration of the things we took for granted until we nearly lost them: sharing a meal with family and friends, dancing, swimming in the public pool, bochincheando in the local beauty or barber shop, hanging out, our homeland, or applauding our favorite artists.

Now, I’ve never seen In the Heights on stage, so that press screening was my first exposure to Miranda’s opera prima, and I suspect that that will be the case for many who see it in a movie theater this weekend or on HBO Max (although I urge everyone to see it in a theater, not only for the communal experience but also because we all want to make sure In the Heights makes it to this weekend’s Top 5 box office).

Alegría Hudes has shifted some scenes and songs around, and has even expanded and updated one of the supporting characters’ storyline. The streets of Washington Heights give Chu, his entire production team and Director of Photography Alice Brooks a huge canvas to play with, allowing the work to transcend its theatrical roots. 

Instead of an overriding storyline, Alegría Hudes, Miranda and Chu paint a mosaic made of at least half a dozen stories, with lead character Usnavi (the incredibly charismatic actor of Puerto Rican descent, Anthony Ramos, taking over from Miranda who played the role on stage) acting as our guide. People are full of sueñitos in Washington Heights, Usnavi tells a group of children gathered around him, including his own dream of reopening a beachside bar that his parents once owned in the Dominican Republican, now in ruins after a hurricane struck the island. He also has a deep crush on Vanessa (Mexican actress Melissa Barrera) who dreams of becoming a fashion designer in Manhattan.

Kevin (Jimmy Smits), the owner of a near-bankrupt cab company, has sacrificed everything to give his daughter Nina (Dominican-American singer Leslie Grace, in her movie debut) an Ivy League education. Nina, on the other hand, is not quite sure she’ll go back to Stanford, after being treated so demeaningly by the mostly white student body. Then there’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), Usnavi’s best friend, and Kevin’s best employee, who pines after Nina. That expanded storyline I mentioned earlier belongs to Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), an actual Dreamer who participates in pro-DACA protests.

And finally, there’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from the original Broadway production), everyone’s adoptive grandmother, her apartment a gathering spot for good food (ropa vieja included), conversation, and drama. In Merediz’s endearing performance we are reminded of our own grandparents, especially those who are no longer with us and are dearly missed. From her comes the line that describes the film’s main theme, and could be adopted by everyone as a guiding principle: “We assert our identity in small ways, little details to tell the world we were not invisible.” Little details that come to life throughout the film and particularly in Claudia’s big musical number, “Paciencia y fe,” where she looks back at her life as a Cuban immigrant in New York.

The ultimate dream is to win the lottery, of course… in this case, a lottery ticket worth $96,000 someone bought at Usnavi’s bodega, which leads to one of In the Heights’ most delightful musical sequences: an intricate set-piece at Washington Heights’ Highbridge Pool that not only recalls Busby Berkeley’s 1930s musicals, but Esther Williams’ 1940s aquamusicals, elaborate showpieces that included synchronized swimming and diving. The film’s unique casting of extras pays dividends in this sequence as well as in the film’s opening number, for the hundreds of singers and dancers who take part are not your typical young camera-friendly faces with svelte bodies that you see in dozens of musicals. They are everyday people, ones whose faces, ages, body types, even clothes, are familiar to you. They are the kind of people you run into as you walk down Division Street, between the two giant steel Puerto Rican flags in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, or up and down the streets of Santurce, Puerto Rico. 

Berkeley and Williams are not the only movie musical ancestors Chu and Miranda pay respect to. One musical number is clearly indebted to West Side Story, while the scene where Nina and Benny dance sideways on a building’s façade pays tribute to the elegant, gravity-defying musicals of Fred Astaire. The setting—the days leading to a massive blackout on the hottest night of the year—also tips its hat at a filmmaker who dabbled with the genre in his underrated musical School Daze: Spike Lee, whose Do the Right Thing took place in another colorful New York neighborhood confronting issues of racism on a hot, summer day.

As a Puerto Rican, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the film and some of the island’s key cultural referents. Usnavi’s name mirrors the one given to the protagonist of Pedro Juan Soto’s classic novel Usmail, the story of an Afro-Puerto Rican boy born in the island municipality of Vieques in the ’30s, whose lands were expropriated by the U.S. Navy for military practices. And the chorus for “Alabanza” brings to mind a similar chorus in “Oubao Moin,” Juan Antonio Corretjer’s epic poem about Puerto Rican identity musicalized by Roy Brown, one of the founders of Puerto Rico’s New Song movement in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Now, I may be reading too much into this—after all, In the Heights doesn’t reach the same level of socio-political critique as those two works—but they did make me smile and think, yep, they know what they’re doing.

In the Heights is a big film with a big heart, full of love. You can feel that love in every frame, in every edit and camera movement, in every costume and, most important, in every performance, from the saucy, gossipy beauticians played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco, to Jimmy Smits’s beautifully calibrated and oftentimes heartbreaking turn as Kevin. Leslie Grace delivers a poignant and powerful portrait as a woman who, as the first in her family to go to college, carries the burden of an entire community’s hopes and dreams on her shoulders. Ramos, however, is the beating heart of In the Heights, his performance as big, as vital, as charming and as confident as the film itself.

In the Heights is so big, in fact, that one viewing is not enough; it rewards multiple viewings, and I for one am looking forward to seeing it again.

Word of advice: DO NOT leave the theater or turn your streaming off during the end credits. I left the theater and missed what I’ve been told is a really funny scene involving Lin-Manuel’s piragüero right after the credits end rolling.

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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