As I mentioned on IG earlier this week, I recently watched and immediately loved In the Heights, the recently-released musical from director Jon M. Chu, which is based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical of the same name. I’m not Latinx, I’ve never been to Washington Heights and my Spanish is Sesame Street-level, so I was kind of lost whenever the characters spoke it, but seeing the beauty and struggle of this North American immigrant story totally resonated with me. (Though I am obligated to disagree with the idea that the single greatest place in the Caribbean is the Dominican Republic, sorry not sorry.)
I like musicals, so yes, the big song-and-dance numbers were fun, but they're not what has stayed with me. Instead, it’s the smaller moments: Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) singing about leaving her home in Cuba for a better life in New York, where she had to find small moments of dignity in the drudgery of cleaning houses. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) feeling torn between two places that feel like home, one of which he'd totally idealized based on nostalgia. Nina (Leslie Grace) struggling under the weight of her community's expectations while feeling out of place at university. The details didn’t line up—our accents aren’t the same and let’s be honest, a street-shaking dance number with Trini dancers would have vastly different choreography—but looking at broad strokes? Yeah, it felt familiar.
But I’m very aware that a mixed Indo-Caribbean woman seeing herself in a movie for and about Latinx people is kind of galling considering who’s not represented: Afro-Latinx people, who make up about 25% the Latinx population in America. Despite the actual demographics of Washington Heights, the movie’s Latinx protagonists are light-skinned, white-passing—or straight-up white. In a film that’s meant to be a long-awaited example of representation for Latinx people, who accounted for only 4.5% of speaking roles in the 100 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2018 according to a 2019 study from USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative, this was extremely disappointing. But you know what was worse? Whenever people pointed out the movie’s colourism this week, the cast, director and many prominent (light-skinned) Latinx celebrities reacted with defensiveness and deflection. Still, there has been one bright spot: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s response.
Obviously, In the Heights is not the first movie to fail at Afro-Latinx representation, though the stakes feel particularly high considering its status as one of the first big budget Latinx projects. But, the USC Annenberg study found that in the rare cases that casting directors did cast Latinx actors, they were always the ones who ‘looked the type.’ (Unsurprisingly, the most frequently-hired actors in the study’s 11-year period were Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Eugenio Derbez and Jessica Alba.) There are two reasons for this, as Monica Castillo pointed out on NPR this week. First, there has been a long history of anti-Blackness and colourism in Hollywood. But “the other deeper issue is that of colorism [sic] within U.S. Latino and Latin American culture,” she writes. “As part of the region's colonial legacy, light-skinned or white-passing Latinos and Latin Americans have earned a social privilege often denied to dark-skinned Afro-Latinos or Indigenous people. It's why Latin American media so often only featured blond hair-blue-eyed crooners, telenovela stars or news anchors.”
Speaking to Rolling Stone, Ed Morales, a lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, goes even further, explaining that this white supremacist idea of what Latinx people look like exists because of a Latin American ideology that emphasizes racial mixing. “It’s attached to this idea of what’s called mestizo, which is, as the word describes, the phenomenon of racial mixture in Latin America and how it’s different from the United States,” Morales told writer Andrea Marks. “Latinos in the U.S. grew up with this idea that Latinos are mixed-race and so are incapable of racism. And that allows them to sort of marginalize and ignore Afro-Latinos who are often the victims of overt or subtle discrimination.”
This idea is pervasive, and it helps explain how Lin-Manuel Miranda can only now realize that he has played a role, however unintentional, in systemic colourism. It also, I think, explains why the many talented Afro-Latinx actors working today are rarely cast in Latinx stories—because they’re perceived solely as Black.
Like, obviously. I know I don’t need to explain why:
let me go even further. anything about the washington heights community at large that dont specifically center *black dominicans* (not just any latinos--BLACK DOMINICANS) is a trash ass whitewashed fantasy. and that is what in the heights is.— zahira🌴 (@bad_dominicana) June 10, 2021
I lived in Washington Heights for 5 years. You can’t take a step in Washington Heights without seeing dark skinned Black-Latin people. #InTheHeights erases them from the neighborhood. This ‘light skinned Latinx only’ story is very disappointing. https://t.co/bm6Yzlhpn3— Amara💙Equality ✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿 (@Amara_deMachado) June 13, 2021
But I think it’s worth talking about how the narrative around In the Heights changed, and why. Because until days before the film's release, the media coverage I saw was almost completely celebratory. In fact, none of the critics or writers whose work I read seemed to even notice anything amiss with the casting.
That is, until Felice León, an Afro-Cuban video producer, interviewed the cast for The Root. (I watched her video before I saw the movie, which was a huge part of why I knew to look out for exactly who was missing.) She matter-of-factly asked Chu for his thoughts on In the Heights’ lack of Afro-Latinx representation and his response was… underwhelming: “I think that was something we talked about, and I needed to be educated about,” he said. “In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people who were best for those roles. We saw a lot of people, people like Daphne [Rubin-Vega, who plays Daniela, the co-owner of a neighborhood hair salon] and Dascha [Polanco, who plays Cuca], but I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin. I think that’s a really good conversation to have, something that we should all be talking about.”
The fact that Chu needed to be educated on the existence of Afro-Latinx people is deeply troubling—you’d think that would be part of the research he did before signing on to direct a movie about a community he doesn’t belong to?!— but at least he’s had enough media training to respond in a conciliatory manner. (Or maybe he had some practice from the last time his movie ignored darker-skinned people.) Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa, was more defensive. "In the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there… A lot of darker-skinned people,” she said. “And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent." So… the people who best embodied the protagonists just all happened to be light-skinned or white-passing, huh? And the roles the darker-skinned actors embodied just happened to be minor characters or dancers—“decoration,” as León poignantly put it in an interview with NPR. Cool 🙄.
It’s uncomfortable to hear these white supremacist ideas communicated so blatantly by people of colour, but I think it’s better to shine a light on these attitudes than not to—which is why I can’t overstate how important León’s video was in shaping the subsequent conversation about colourism. Because it’s not just that media wasn’t talking about this problem; I’m also willing to bet studio execs made decisions around media availability that helped suppress these critiques. León says she wasn’t granted an interview with Miranda himself, though other outlets, including The Root’s sister publication, AV Club, were, and it sounds like her interviews didn’t even happen until pretty late in the press tour.
There’s justified pent up frustration in Latino community. For so long, we’ve felt under-represented and unseen in media.— Ana Navarro-Cárdenas (@ananavarro) June 15, 2021
But, can we recognize @Lin_Manuel is a good, decent guy who’s done much to open doors for all sorts of POC on Broadway & Hollywood.
Cut the guy some slack.
This could have been an opportunity to have a real conversation about colourism, anti-Blackness and white privilege. Instead, prominent Latinx people, including film icon Rita Moreno and The View host Ana Navarro, responded to Black people’s criticism by defending the movie, and it was all the way fucked up.
Moreno appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where she wondered why critics couldn’t “just wait a while and leave it alone.” (She has since walked those comments back.) Meanwhile, Navarro tweeted that people should “recognize Lin-Manuel is a good, decent guy who's done much to open doors for all sorts of POC on Broadway & Hollywood… Cut the guy some slack." She went on to downplay the importance of representation—or at least, this type of representation— on Tuesday’s episode of The View, saying, "it's not a documentary. It's not a Benetton ad. It's a musical, people! It's two hours."
While you’d think that marginalized people would see the value of representation for everyone and, having received those dismissive excuses before, be better equipped to handle feedback when we get it wrong, it’s clearly still really difficult when a thing you love, a thing that makes you feel seen, is criticized. But you know the race of Miranda’s defenders plays a role here, too—asking Afro-Latinx people to wait longer for their representation, to stay quiet, to swallow their pain for the greater good is peak white fragility.
That’s what made Miranda’s response so refreshing. On Monday, he posted an apology on Twitter and on Tuesday, he addressed the controversy on The Daily Show, and in both instances, I not only believed that he was sorry, I felt like he gave Afro-Latinx people’s feelings as much space as he gave his own. That’s not something we often see with celebrity apologies—look at Chrissy Teigen as a recent example. Both of her public statements centred herself and her fans, and kept circling around how she was being impacted by… uh, her own actions. So, I extra appreciate Miranda taking a different approach, because there’s a real value in having a model for how to respond gracefully, sensitively and with integrity when we inevitably make mistakes.
criticism ≠ "hate"— Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) June 15, 2021
criticism ≠ "canceled"
That being said, a good apology doesn't undo Miranda's colourism, especially since he knows what the population of Washington Heights actually looks like, seeing as he grew up there. It also doesn't change the fact that the musical was similarly white-washed. But it does nod to a way forward.
I kept seeing a similar notion from both critics and fans of In the Heights, that the movie could only be one thing, either a win for representation or a total failure. But that’s not true. It is both beautiful, fun and meaningful, and a reminder that even our most well-intentioned efforts can still hurt people and so we must do better. And honestly, when the more we resist holding those two thoughts in our heads, the more we're just distracting ourselves from what actually needs to happen: the real, ongoing work of anti-racism.
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