Representation matters. Representation has always mattered and always will matter. Gatekeepers, however, determine — and continue to determine, though in a slightly reduced amount — who receives representation and the form that representation takes. For members of the Latinx community, that’s meant decades of either under-representation to the point of invisibility or the worst kind of representation (e.g., violent criminals, drug dealers, etc.), but time, not to mention changing demographics, has been on our side. There’s no better example of this thesis than the pandemic-delayed In the Heights from Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians, Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D). The brilliant, big-screen adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (Hamilton) 2008 Tony Award-winning musical does justice not just to the source material (revised here to reflect more contemporary concerns), but the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-cultural Latinx people that are too often marginalized, erased, or simply forgotten by the dominant culture.
Given the origins of In the Heights and in the traditions of musical theater and Broadway stagecraft, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that In The Heights contains enough characters, stories, and yes, songs to fill a multi-part prestige miniseries. That’s certainly not meant as a criticism or knock on In the Heights, only that Hudes and Miranda have created something truly special here, deeply drawn characters, in both their universality and their specificity, that could, individually or collectively, carry an entire or spotlight episode by themselves. Few big-screen or small-screen films can make anything close to a similar claim, but it’s both the who and the why In the Heights, with or without music, is a unique experience: everyday Latinx characters living their lives, surviving, struggling, and dreaming.
Hudes and Miranda’s musical centers In the Heights on Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), a Dominican immigrant, bodega owner, and resident narrator. In the Heights unfolds, at least in part, as Usnavi’s story, of how he came to the United States, of the parents he lost and the bodega he gained, and the dream of return to an idealized, romanticized Dominican Republic where he can reopen the seaside bar and restaurant once owned by his late father. But for Usnavi, leaving the Latinx, working-class neighborhood of Washington Heights, his boisterous, extroverted cousin, Sonny de la Vega (Gregory Diaz IV), “Abuela” (grandmother) Claudia (Olga Merediz), the de facto matriarch, mentor, and maternal figure to Usnavi, Sonny, and many others, and at least for Usnavi, most importantly, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), his longtime crush and the source of his romantic angst, proves to be much harder to achieve than he imagines.
Sonny, Abuela Claudia, and Vanessa aren’t without dreams of their own, of course. An undocumented immigrant, Sonny doesn’t want to return to a country he doesn’t remember. He wants to remain in the U.S. and eventually become a citizen. For Abuela Claudia, it’s less about the Cuba she left behind decades earlier than the legacy, the memories she’ll bequeath to her surrogate family. Like Usnavi, Vanessa has a dream of her own, a business of her own and a West Village apartment (a sure sign of success and status). As their paths cross and criss-cross, their desires, anxieties, and at least in Usnavi’s case, talent for self-sabotage shape, influence, and ultimately rearrange their respective relationships, sometimes via dialogue, but just as often via songs influenced by a variety of different musical styles from different countries.
In the Heights also follows Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), a first-year Stanford student back home after nearly a year away, her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), a small business owner and widower (a major change from the stage musical) who’s dedicated his life to raising Nina and helping her become an academic success and through her, his own. Nina and Kevin’s fraught relationship —Nina trying to find her way in a predominantly white world for the first time, Kevin living for and through Nina — may seem commonplace to some, but for many first- and second-generation members of the Latinx community, it’s their (our) lived reality. Juggling personal, familial, and community expectations, all the while attempting to succeed via supposedly color-blind, meritocratic stands, is an emotionally resonant, potent one.
If In the Heights stumbles somewhat, it’s not in the characters, characters, or dialogue/songs, but in an upbeat positivity that deliberately sidesteps the complexities and contradictions inherent in the sometimes accurate, sometimes broad Latinx community. Given its multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-cultural nature, Latinx communities aren’t immune to conflicts over status (documented or not), social standing, or colorism. In the Heights hints at Kevin’s race- or ethnic-based disapproval of Nina’s African-American ex-boyfriend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), but doesn’t pursue that particular angle, instead focusing on Nina’s future unencumbered by the demands of long-distance, monogamous relationships and the potential class differences that will emerge the longer Nina lives and thrives outside the Washington Heights community.
In the Heights also hints at an unseen, barely referenced villain: The relentless, inexorable drive of profit-over-people capitalism and the real-estate owners, the same real-estate owners remaking Washington Heights one store corner or apartment building at a time in their (white) owners’ images. As the owner of the neighborhood beauty parlor packs up to move to the land of cheaper rents and more equitable space (the Bronx), it becomes increasingly clear that the colorful, vibrant life the Latinx community has created for itself in Washington Heights simply can’t last under the constant socioeconomic pressure felt by working-class Latinx over the last several decades. Even a feel-good, wraparound ending that brings us back to Usnavi, Vanessa, and the fate and future of their relationship feels slightly unearned, less for how Usnavi and Vanessa feel for each other than the likelihood that Usnavi’s corner bodega would be gone in just a few years, a victim of escalating rents and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, both symptoms of an economic system that’s always favored not just wealth or the accumulation of wealth, but whiteness too.
Even with those minor caveats in mind, though, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to resist its many charms, from a top-to-bottom talented cast that should be in films and TV series for years or decades to come, to the well-crafted, well-integrated songs that give audiences insight into characters, mood, and place while also delivering a steady stream of danceable, hummable songs, and finally, but certainly not lastly, to seasoned director Chu and an approach that maximizes In the Heights cinematic potential — including an old-school, public pool-set number that featured 500 extras, a couple’s heartfelt, gravity-defying, relationship redefining dance, and an electric, electrifying courtyard-set song-and-dance during one of the hottest days of the summer — while still keeping the multi-layered central characters and their individual and collective journeys joyously front-and-center.
Warner Bros will release In the Heights in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, June 11.