Broadway musical film adaptation In The Heights made its big debut last Friday (June 11), but the only thing the movie left viewers asking was, where are all the Afro-Latinx people? As a film meant to highlight New York's vibrant and diverse Washington Heights neighborhood, In The Heights missed the mark for inclusivity and it left a bad taste in many people's mouths.
The overall criticism of the film pointed out the fact that In The Heights didn't accurately portray the shades and hues of the Latinx community in Washington Heights, continuing a long-standing trend of erasure in Hollywood for Black people. With a main cast primarily made up of lighter-skinned/white-passing actors, the film managed to shut out a crucial part of the Latinx community who have been historically left out of their own narratives. To make matters worse, the cast and crew of In The Heights did little to initially acknowledge the film's faults and that is what sent many viewers and users online into an outrage.
The colorism controversy surrounding the film was brought to light after a in-depth video interview with The Root went live ahead of the film's premiere. In the interview, video producer and correspondent Felice León sat down with director Jon M. Chu to dissect the movie's erasure of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx folks for what should've been a productive conversation addressing some of the film's flaws. However, Chu's response to the lack of darker-skinned Black Latinx actors appearing in the movie is not at all what people expected to hear.
“[The lack of Black Latinx people represented] was something that we talked about and that I needed to be educated about,” Chu acknowledged. “In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people who were best for those roles.” The latter remark were also echoed by members of the principal cast – specifically Melissa Barrera – who doubled down on the fact that “a lot of Afro Latinos” did in fact audition for lead roles in the movie. However, it was revealed that casting for In The Heights wanted to make sure they got “the right people for the roles," which coincidently excluded Black Latinx folks.
At the height of the controversy, film creator Lin-Manuel Miranda – known for writing Broadway hit Hamilton – issued a public statement on social media in which he apologized for falling short in trying to encompass the entire Latinx community in the movie. In his letter, Miranda shared that he initially created In The Heights because he himself "didn't feel seen" but realizes that in seeing the film, other darker-skinned Latinx people also didn't see themselves reflected on-screen.
“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback. 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,” he wrote. “In trying to paint this mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry.”
The decade-long project had a lackluster box office opening that was partially impacted by the damning reviews and film critiques. In The Heights should've been an opportunity to show the world exactly what the entire Latinx community looks like, but instead turned into another contributor to the erasure of Black people in their own stories.