“In the Heights” takes place in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and written by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the original book), follows characters played by Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera and Corey Hawkins as they each work to pursue their career dreams.
The film has earned praise for uplifting Latino voices in an industry that vastly underrepresents Latino communities. A study conducted by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in 2019 found that Latinos accounted for just 4.5 percent of all speaking characters in the 1,200 top grossing films from the previous dozen years. By contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau reports approximately 18.5 percent of the overall population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.
But as “In the Heights” continued to be regarded as real progress for on-screen representation, many voiced concern over the racial makeup of the film’s cast. Grace, who portrays Nina, is the only Afro-Latina among the lead actors. Her character’s non-Latino love interest, Benny, is played by Hawkins, the only dark-skinned Black actor in the main cast.
“Where are the dark-skinned Black Latinx folks with a story line?” the Root’s Felice León wrote in a recent article about the film. “After all, this film is placed in Washington Heights, N.Y., right?!”
In a separate interview with Chu and a few cast members, the director told León that the team talked about Afro-Latino representation but went with the actors they felt were “best for the roles.” While Barrera responded in a similar fashion, Grace noted to León that she hoped “to see my brothers and sisters that are darker than me lead these movies” as well.
In his apology on Monday, Miranda wrote that he originally conceived of “In the Heights” because he “didn’t feel seen.” The musical eventually opened on Broadway in 2008 and earned 13 Tony Award nominations, winning four. It set Manuel on a clear path for success, boosted years later by “Hamilton.” Over the last 20 years, he wrote, “all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen.”
“I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings,” he stated. “Thanks for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”