Confession: This self-declared, “not a huge lover of musicals adapted to film” played hooky last week on premiere day of the long awaited In the Heights film. I bought a ticket to the first showing of the movie I could find in San Francisco. For my 2pm viewing, I chose an XD screen (which means Extreme Digital with a ceiling-to-floor and wall-to-wall screen) because it had been well over 16 months since I’d stepped foot into a movie theatre and I was desperate to be entertained. I also suspected that what I was about to see merited the BIG SCREEN and holy hell, I was right!
In this love letter to Washington Heights – a vibrant, tight-knit, changing community north of 155th Street in Manhattan – brought to life by the trifecta of talent that is writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Jon Chu (of Crazy Rich Asians fame), we know from the beginning what we’re in for when Usnavi (played by Anthony Ramos) tells a group of kids gathered around him, “Once upon a time there’s Washington Heights, and the streets were made of music.”
In the Heights is filled with metaphor and magical realism, two techniques well-utilized by Latin storytellers.
In my worldview, love is an active verb and an imperfect undertaking we humans endeavor and In the Heights is the perfect incarnation of both sentiments with a strong emphasis on the love. Also in my worldview: when the love is undeniable, as it is in this film, it covers with grace love’s inevitable shortcomings.
This film is bursting with bounce-in-your-seat, tap-your-feet music that makes you want to jump out of your chair and into the screen to join the cast in the shimmy and shake of their dancing ensembles. Large dance numbers in hot night clubs and cool swimming pools drench the viewer in the lusty panting of a song that you think is about to end, only to bring another high crescendo refrain to wring the dance out of you.
This film is also bursting with pride. When the same character Usnavi asks the children who they are learning about in school for Spanish Heritage Month, he schools them in a litany of one name must-knows:
“And don’t forget Sonia (as in Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor),” one of the children reminds him. (Yes, please don’t forget her!) Right there, a solid but incomplete list of Latina giants on whose shoulders so many of us stand. Also, right here, closer to home… lump in my throat pride. You see, I’m the Nina in this film (played by Leslie Grace), the first generation in my family to go to college and while not Stanford (I went to Middlebury College), I was the source of pride and hope for my family and community and was lifted by the sacrifices made by my single mother, Delia. The experiences Nina described at Stanford and her feelings of not belonging, I remember well, and in her father Kevin’s voice (played impeccably by Jimmy Smits), I hear my own deceased mother’s voice: “You’re the best me I’ve got. If you can’t stay in the ring, what does that mean for the rest of us?”
(Worth noting: Thanks to so many, including an awesome college counselor, a fierce mother and supportive and loving friends, I stayed in the ring. You can too.)
Related Post: Book Review: Letters from Cuba, by Ruth Behar
In the Heights is filled with metaphor and magical realism, two techniques well-utilized by Latin storytellers. And at the film’s bedrock lives el sueñito, the little dream we all carry within us and hope to manifest in our lifetimes. (Sidenote: I once heard poet David Whyte say that a life without a dream is a life in danger and I can still feel the chill down my spine from that truth.)
Washington Heights is teeming with sueñitos and the dreamers who dream them and the challenges that appear on the path as we show up to do the work to turn our dreams into reality. Again, Usnavi reminds us that “a sueñito is not a sparkling diamond we get. Sometimes, it’s rough.”
The intention of this film is to praise and celebrate the Latino community and I believe it does that even if it is imperfect.
The themes of power and powerlessness – artfully delivered through apagones (blackouts) – dignity, belonging and the little details that tell the world we are not invisible are explored poignantly and in a relevant manner and it is in this last point that much ink has been spilled, calling out the film for its lack of full inclusion of dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation among the main characters. The feedback warranted a humble response from Lin-Manuel Miranda in the form of a Tweet:
When a well-intentioned man like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has done so much for the Latino community, promises to do better in his future projects, we realize that there is much work that we ALL still need to do within our own community to ensure our arms are open wide enough that EVERYONE feels embraced. As stated earlier, love is an active verb and an imperfect undertaking. It’s a messy business if you’re brave enough to enter into its heart and take the risk. When it falls short, I always look at intent. The intention of this film is to praise and celebrate the Latino community and I believe it does that even if it is imperfect. The love was received. Warmly. Gratefully. Proudly. And yes, there is always room for improvement.
But please, don’t just take my word for it. Go see In the Heights for yourself. Go ahead, play hooky. I especially want to know if you could sit still in your seat or if you too were shaking your booty, eager to be taken in by the music and dance and the love.