Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights reveals the paradox of representation

The controversy around the Hamilton creator’s new film raises pressing questions on the line between artistic freedom and social equality

July 08, 2021
Set one sweltering summer in Washington Heights, the musical tells the story of Usnavi, a shopkeeper in his late twenties who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic but is torn by his love of Vanessa. Photo: IMDB
Set one sweltering summer in Washington Heights, the musical tells the story of Usnavi, a shopkeeper in his late twenties who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic but is torn by his love of Vanessa. Photo: IMDB

Lin-Manuel Miranda spent the days after the release of his new film apologising. Miranda, famous for turning the Founding Fathers into Hispanics and African Americans in his era-defining musical, Hamilton, was under fire for the casting choices of In the Heights, the screen adaptation of his Tony Award-winning musical. 

Set one sweltering summer in Washington Heights, a two-thirds Hispanic neighbourhood in Manhattan, the musical tells the story of Usnavi, a shopkeeper in his late twenties who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic but is torn by his love of Vanessa—the barrio beauty who wants to escape the Heights to work in fashion. Meanwhile, Nina, the cleverest person in the neighbourhood, is fighting with her father over whether she will return to Stanford University after experiencing racism in the prestigious Californian college. 

Though the film regularly discusses racism, Miranda’s musical extravaganza has been charged with whitewashing a neighbourhood the New York Times recently described as “predominantly Afro-Dominican.” 

Miranda, a light-skinned Puerto Rican-American who used to live in the area, has been accused of colourism—a term used to describe discrimination against darker-skinned members of an ethnic group. Of the actors, only Leslie Grace Martínez, who plays Nina, is Afro-Latin (defined as someone of African descent who is also Latin American) and she is light-skinned. The film’s darker-skinned performers play peripheral parts, such as background dancers. 

In a statement, Miranda said he could “hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling unseen.”  

This pigmentocracy is not new to Hollywood: a casting call for women extras in the NWA biographical drama Straight Outta Compton was roundly criticised in 2014 for asking for “light-skinned” “fine girls,” while those with “medium to dark skin tone” were only invited if they were “poor, not in good shape.” (And a quick look at Bollywood will make clear that the issue is not exclusive to America.) But In the Heights comes at a time when the film industry is under pressure to diversify.  

Colourism—which may be little more than a euphemistic term for racism—is a particular issue for the Afro-Latins in Washington Heights. Many came to New York from the Dominican Republic fleeing the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930-61), who ordered the genocidal massacre of thousands of black Haitians and Dominicans: “Trujillo did it because he hated us, because he didn't want to see black people in his country,” a survivor has said. And in America, they find themselves in worlds that associate lighter skin with beauty and intelligence.

Yet In the Heights is a fiction—an act of a creator’s imagination. The portrayal of the neighbourhood may not be racially representative, but does that make it colourist or racist? No work of art or entertainment could capture the full essence of such a diverse area. If a filmmaker decides to focus on a particular family or racial group within a community, that is his or her prerogative. A creator’s output should be judged on what it intends to be, not what it doesn’t. 

But here’s the catch. In the words of Miranda’s mea culpa, In the Heights tried to “paint a mosaic of this community.” Had the intention been to focus on a light-skinned or mestizo family, rather than for “all of us [in Washington Heights] to feel seen,” the film’s casting decisions would be creatively understandable. Instead, In the Heights, which claims to promote the culture of one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in the United States, excludes many of its residents. In this context, it becomes especially ironic that one of the film’s central storylines—whether Nina will return to Stanford—focuses on racial prejudice.   

To portray Latin culture within the parameters of Hollywood, In the Heights must tread a tightrope. It undertakes the unenviable challenge of depicting a minority culture authentically whilst remaining intelligible to an audience unfamiliar with it. In the film, Miranda deploys tropes familiar to outsiders, such as the community's abundant love of grandmothers, and the prevalence of hair and nail salons. The question, pertinent to any production focusing on a minority culture, is whether this approach falls into cliché, or provides an antidote to widespread negative stereotypes.  

In the Heights is mainly in English, reflecting the conventions of the Hollywood musical, and also the varied extent to which Spanish is spoken by the children and grandchildren of Latin American immigrants. To the film’s credit, many Spanish words and song lyrics are left untranslated, and many references are left unexplained. This is an important point for ethnic minority art; as the Vietnamese-American novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen urged: “Writers from a minority, write as if you are the majority. Do not explain. Do not cater. Do not translate. Do not apologise. Assume everyone knows what you are talking about, as the majority does. Write with all the privileges of the majority, but with the humility of a minority.”  

Miranda has the right to tell this girl-meets-boy story set in Washington Heights, and the right to cast actors as he wishes. But it’s the fact that the film’s intention was to “paint a mosaic” of the neighbourhood that means that, on one level, the mosaic is a creative failure.  

In the long-term, the controversy could be a good thing. It has unwittingly raised important questions about intra-community bias and industry that consistently prefers minority actors who are lighter-skinned. For too long, Hollywood and American society at large have ignored the heterogeneity within ethnic minority communities. 

With its vibrant rhythms and upbeat tone, In the Heights is a celebration. One just has to wonder why so few Afro-Latins were invited.