Black Latinos Cry Foul Over Little Representation In ‘In The Heights’

L: scene from ‘The Heights’ R: Rita Moreno/Precious Gem Award

In the words of my dear friend, television show creator and writer Derrick Thompson, “Looks like the honeymoon is over in the heights.” He is, of course, referencing the backlash against Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly anticipated film musical, “In The Heights.” The big-screen production opened last week to initially positive reviews. However, it quickly received intense public criticism for allegedly white-washing its representation of the Hispanic, New York neighborhood, known as Washington Heights.

For people who may not understand the controversy, the first thing to know is that Hispanic heritage is a myriad of diversity unto itself with various cultural ethnicities, customs, origins, and, yes — skin colors. There is a distinct visible difference and often uniquely different life experiences for white-Latinos versus Afro-Latinos. Afro-Latinos are black people of Hispanic heritage. According to a Pew study, they account for one-quarter of all U.S. Latinos, and globally the Afro-Latino population is estimated to be nearly 600,000,000.

In the film “In The Heights,” which was touted as the long-over-due Hollywood celebration of Hispanic people, the cast is predominantly all-white or European-looking Hispanics. And that is problematic right out of the gate for this production because Washington Heights’ rich history derives from a significant Afro-Latino population comprised of dark-skinned, black Dominicans, Hondurans, Brazilians, Cubans, and more. Yet, they are mostly seen as background ensemble players in “In The Heights.”

Sadly, despite an abundance of riveting musical numbers, the film’s critics argue that it’s an insult to the black Hispanics who helped make the neighborhood so special and revered. The accusation is clear — the “white-washing” of Washington Heights was a deliberate continuation of Hollywood’s exhaustive legacy of undermining, if not wholly erasing, black people from leading film roles —even in their own stories. 

Detractors argue that “In The Heights” is yet another example of Hollywood capitalizing on the rich tales of ethnic people. But only after those people are removed from the narrative and replaced by a cast of white-looking or actual caucasian actors. 

The limited presence of darker-skinned Afro-Latinx actors in lead roles in “In The Heights” blew up as a trending topic on social media over the weekend. It started after  Felice León from The Root called out director Jon M Chu and cast members Gregory Diaz, Leslie Grace, and Melissa Barrera for the peculiar casting choices.

Chu seemed to uncomfortably respond by stating the criticism was “fair” and that he welcomed the discussion, but he also said he hopes the conversation will inspire others to “tell more stories and get out there and do it right.” So does that mean he is acknowledging unequivocally that he did it wrong? 

We can’t forget too that Chu has been down this road before. Also the director of the hit film “Crazy Rich Asians,” he was called out by the Asian Community for casting very fair-skinned Asian lead actors in the movie. At the same time, secondary parts and extra roles went to dark, olive-skinned Asian actors. 

As the firestorm brewed around “In The Heights,” Miranda felt compelled to post a message on social media, seemingly accepting the criticism and taking responsibility. 

He wrote,

“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback,” he said. “I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy. In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry.”

Beloved iconic actress Rita Moreno worked with Miranda on her documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. The two have become close friends, and she defended him in a recent appearance on the Colbert show, making comments she quickly walked back.

Moreno asked Colbert, “Can we talk for a second about that criticism about Lin-Manuel? That upsets me.” Colbert — a non-Hispanic, seemed to be more in touch with the matter’s social implications than Moreno as he explained to her that the controversy stemmed from the lack of Afro-Latinos in “In The Heights.”

Still, Moreno continued, 

You can never do right, it seems,” she said. “This is the man who literally has brought Latino-ness and Puerto Rican-ness to America. “I’m simply saying, ‘Can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone?’… I mean, they’re really attacking the wrong person.

After facing backlash from many in the Afro-Latino community for her comments —and hopefully, because she genuinely now gets how insensitive they were, Moreno posted an apology to Twitter:

“I’m incredibly disappointed with myself. While making a statement in defense of Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Colbert Show last night, I was clearly dismissive of black lives that matter in our Latin community. It is so easy to forget how celebration for some is a lament for others.”

Moreno’s initial comments disappointed many black Hispanics fans who loved her for years, but it sheds light on the colorism in the community. Moreover, it exposes Moreno’s selective obliviousness to black Latinos facing discrimination that a white Latina – like herself, will never encounter.

Producer Tambay Obenson quickly gave the first Puerto Rican Oscar-Winning legend a refresher course by reminding her that in 1961’s West Side Story, rather than hiring a naturally dark-skinned Latina actress, producers instead darkened Moreno’s skin for the film.

Rita Moreno in brown face as Anita, West Side Story, 1961

Obenson’s tweet seemed to set Moreno straight, 

“#FunFact: Rita Moreno’s skin was darkened for her role as Anita in the 1961 adaptation of “West Side Story,” which launched her career with an Oscar win. Although she didn’t have a say in the matter. But clearly, for Black Latinx in Hollywood, “wait a while” is so 1960s.”

Ouch, and the Oscar for Best Wig Snatch goes to…

 Read more at The Independent UK

4 thoughts on “Black Latinos Cry Foul Over Little Representation In ‘In The Heights’”

  1. If you ever been to Washington Heights, there are a lot of dark skinned Latino islanders. So people have the right to critique a film about the Washington Heights community having no darker skinned Latino islanders as leads. And if you want to talk about nit- picking, how come South Americans didn’t come out to support this film? If Asians from different ethnicities came out and supported Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, and Minari why didn’t Latinos from different ethnicities came out and supported In The Heights? Their HBO Max streaming numbers are low and so is their box office. Many Latinos who has roots in South America didn’t watched this movie because it didn’t specifically targeted their ethnicity. The Latino community didn’t even showed up to support its community. So I can understand why Rita Moreno said what she said but it was in poor taste.

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  2. This is NOT an issue. A multi award winning producer, writer, and actor produced a movie about Hispanic culture and it is on a world-wide TV platform for all to see, but you nit-pick one little thing and tear it down. You should be ashamed. I guess Lin-Manuel Miranda is the same as Donald Trump, huh? #instinct you are the lowest for even putting this here so you are blocked from my computer going forward.

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