Confused About Systemic Racism? In The Heights Offers a $55 Million Cinematic Primer.
COMMENTARY

July 2, 2021 by Mary Sanchez
Confused About Systemic Racism? In The Heights Offers a $55 Million Cinematic Primer.
Lin-Manuel Miranda attends the opening night premiere of 'In The Heights' during 2021 Tribeca Festival at United Palace Theater on June 09, 2021 in New York City. (Noam Galai/Getty Images/TNS)

In a matter of weeks, the swell of Latinx pride and anticipation surrounding the release of “In The Heights” has turned and swiped at the film’s creators.

Racism is like that. Never doubt its power; sly and capable of infecting just about anyone and any endeavor.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu quickly reacted to shield their reputations, which are substantial as individually, they’re the forces behind the wild success of the stage production of “Hamilton” and the film “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Both men, but especially Miranda, have humbly replied in recent days to the well-founded criticism: A joyful film that purports to be about the New York community of Washington Heights, should have more accurately represented the races of the people who live there.

Washington Heights is richly an Afro-Latino area, with deep influences from the Dominican Republic. But that’s not fully highlighted. The film falters to white-washing, the cinematic erasing of Black lives.

“In The Heights” is a musical. It’s not a documentary. No Heights resident is performing the Gene Kelly-Spiderman-esque dance scene where two actors gracefully dance, scaling the side of a building. Nor does the community routinely gather at Highbridge for the joyfully choreographed number at that pool.

But to dismiss the racial makeup of those who do inhabit those spaces by not casting more darker-skinned Afro-Latinos, especially in lead roles, is more than an oversight– it’s how racism works.

Unwound, the gaffe is grounded in hundreds of years of Latinos seeing lighter skin as preferable, the African descendent as lesser than, suitable to be tokenized, but not equal.

For those confused about what systemic racism is; pull up a chair. Miranda and Chu just offered a $55 million primer.

The Latino central figures of the film, people that viewers are courted to connect with, to share their dreams and fears, all share a common trait. They’re light-skinned. Many are ethnically androgenous in the way that Hollywood downplays the racial spectrum of humanity, but especially Latinx people, who can be of any race.

It’s not that both creators, Chu as director and Miranda as the creator and star of the original Tony-award winning musical, don’t understand the sensitivities.

In a New York Times article released before the criticism erupted, they discussed intentionally choosing to cast the character of Nina with Leslie Grace. She is Afro-Dominican. And her storyline is that of a hero, the studious and disciplined young woman, a Puerto Rican, who attends Stanford. The character identifies as trigueña; a term noting layers of identity; African, Spanish and indigenous. The reference is probably lost on most viewers.

During one segment, the dialogue praises the fact that Washington Heights residents hail from countries where people survived conquistadores, dictators and slavery. And yet, the attitudes of those eras infected the lands with a brand of classism by skin tone that’s still present.

It happens even in Latino families. The shades of children are noted in nicknames and also because of how society might judge or worse, discriminate.

Miranda and Chu couldn’t have predicted the political and social turmoil of today when they began the arduous task of taking the work from Broadway to Hollywood. Black Lives Matter as a movement and the distortion of Critical Race Theory as a frame to study history weren’t yet on the horizon.

Latinos have stood alongside (and respectfully, often one step behind) African Americans throughout the BLM movement.

But to do so and then refuse to examine the historical racism within our own communities is self- deceit. It happens all the time, in part because these racial attitudes are so wound into how society operates.

Would Hollywood backers have balked if more dark-skinned actors had been cast? Did Chu and Miranda, even unwittingly, accept that as valid instead of challenging the premise?

Chu’s statement to The Root, that they “tried to get the people who were best for those roles” edges uncomfortably close to the old “we couldn’t find any” excuse of corporate America.

None of this negates how fluidly the film captures threads to relish; the homage to matriarchs, the fear and isolation of being undocumented and the emotional weight first generation children carry, tasked with cementing to reality the dreams of their immigrant parents.

It’s just that once noted, the absence of Afro-Latinos is overwhelming. You can’t unsee it.

©2021 Mary Sanchez. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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