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► In the Heights is in cinemas now.
That In the Heights, a flashy yet vacuous representation of the heavily Dominican community of Washington Heights, strives to give Latinx their ‘moment’ in popular culture is evident. But this flaccid objective, this desire for the film to be for Latinx what a blockbuster like Black Panther (2018) was for Black Americans, or what Crazy Rich Asians (2018) was for Asian-Americans, betrays the poverty of its vision.
There is no room for innovation or difficult ideas in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s whimsical version of Washington Heights, just as there is no room in it for Latinx that do not square with a generic understanding of what it means to be Latinx. That no dark-skinned or indigenous Latinx were cast in lead roles is but one illustration. The appeal of unambiguous racial categories, after all, is particularly relevant to a risk-averse industry searching for ways to make profitable the ‘diversification‘ of its storytelling. Such storytelling, which ironically prides itself so deeply on being a marker of progress and change, necessarily produces feeble and flattened results.
Adapted from Miranda’s Tony-winning musical, written by playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Jon M. Chu, In the Heights is an extravaganza of Latinx culture, chock full of color, music and movement that celebrates its beauty and vivaciousness. It wants nothing to do with old dehumanising racial stereotypes – meeting an incredibly low bar – and instead aims to capture The Latinx Experience at large, no matter the specificity of the neighborhood it takes as its vessel.
The film’s main protagonist, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), is a bodega owner with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic; in a cheesy framing device, we see an older version of our hero regaling a group of kiddies with stories of his old neighborhood. Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), is a nail salon worker who wants to escape her community and become a fashion designer in downtown Manhattan. Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) is the neighborhood’s pride and joy, an exceptional student who can’t bear to admit that she wants to drop out of her prestigious university. Meanwhile Benny (Corey Hawkins), who is Black and non-Latinx, pines over Nina and otherwise spends his time demonstrating his good work ethic. These individual stories are interwoven as the captions count down the days until a widespread power outage that throws everyone’s goals into question.
The film abounds in details, sometimes generalisations, that should be pleasantly recognisable to Latinx viewers, everything from our love of sweet, milky coffee to our routine lottery-playing to the reverence for our aging matriarchs, or abuelas (a particularity famously exploited by Hillary Clinton in a botched effort to attract the Latino vote).
Its characters speak in Spanglish, but their dialogue reads like a shoe-horned-in reminder of their foreignness rather than a natural, flowing dialect: nail salon ladies deliver speeches about the resilience of their “people” who’ve lived through slavery, disease, colonisation and authoritarianism; we get a list of important woman typically honoured during Hispanic Heritage month listed out in a charming rhyme; and in one particularly bizarre aside, Uznavi’s teenage cousin invites Nina to a protest: “They’re talking about kicking out the dreamers!”
The film cursorily runs through a number of challenges facing Latinx, including cruel immigration laws, gentrification and housing discrimination. Dozens of boxes are checked, but such efforts do not amount to good art. I wonder what In the Heights would feel like were its characters genuinely developed into real people, rather than the neat representations of ‘authenticity’ that they embody; were they given dialogue that breathes, instead of the near-platitudes they’re fed that feel ripped out of a liberal magazine profile.
But it’s not just that the narrative is dopey and distills a variety of experiences into the shared pursuit of ‘dreams‘, or that its characters’ personalities are made subordinate to the demands of relatable representation. Its visual elements – its musical numbers, its sense of space and rhythm – are downright messy.
Chu relies on fast, choppy editing to energise his song-and-dance scenes, obscuring Christopher Scott’s elaborate and inventive choreography. If Golden Age Hollywood musicals, with their emphasis on exalting the physicality and athleticism of the human body, are at one end of the spectrum, then a modern musical like In the Heights, that cuts willy-nilly and snatches bodies out of the frame mid-movement, is at the uninspired other.
In contrast, the best number, a magic-tinged subway ballad performed by Olga Merediz’s Abuela Claudia, finds a sense of stillness in the peaceful, patient shuffle of the aging woman. The film also squanders its relatively large reported budget of $55 million by making its vibrant set pieces – its pastel-tinted nail salon, its Busby Berkeley-esque community pool – look much smaller and more cramped than they should.
It’s not surprising that a film about the gentrification of an Afro-Latinx neighborhood should wind up being an act of gentrification itself, commodifying Latinx culture and condensing it into more universal, broadly appealing forms. Still, the dearth of imagination, curiosity, and care is staggering.
Sight and Sound, Summer 2022
Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.Find out more and get a copy