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'In The Heights': Can one film bring joy — and spark a Latino conversation on race?

The movie should be celebrated while also discussing issues of colorism and Afro Latino representation, "but not at the cause of having the film fail,” a Latina filmmaker said.
From left: Corey Hawkins as Benny, and Leslie Grace as Nina in Warner Bros "In The Heights".
From left: Corey Hawkins as Benny, and Leslie Grace as Nina in Warner Bros "In The Heights".Macall Polay / Warner Bros

Nidia Bello is seeing a lot of visitors strolling around her New York City bodega, or market, after it was prominently featured in the new movie "In The Heights."

The Dominican American business owner described a recent conversation with a man and his young daughter while they were checking out her Washington Heights neighborhood.

"She had already seen the movie 12 times,” Bello said about the girl.

Nidia Bello, stands behind the counter of her bodega in Washington Heights, N.Y.Nicole Acevedo

As the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's famous Broadway musical reaches its last week in theaters and HBO Max, the Warner Bros. movie has sparked praise from Latinos thrilled to see themselves represented onscreen as smart, ambitious and in control of their lives.

"In The Heights" tells the story of a multigenerational community of Latino residents and business owners grappling with the realities of rising rents, college costs, prejudice and the pull of their home countries. But they also know what they want to achieve and how to get it done, with an ending that is about progress and finding one's place — even in a city as challenging as New York.

But the movie has also generated debate following criticism that it lacked diverse Black Latino main characters. Critics pointed out that a film centered around a predominantly Dominican neighborhood — the Dominican Republic is a country with strong African roots — should have included more Afro Latinos in leading roles. Though one of the movie's main characters is a Black man, he's not Latino.

Fans such as Xavier Reyes worry over how the recent criticism seems to have overshadowed some of the movie's great strides. The Puerto Rican actor based in New York City, said "In The Heights" left him “speechless."

“I cried. I laughed. I was bolted with energy,” he said, adding he was taken aback by the conversations over Afro Latino representation.

Xavier Reyes, a Puerto Rican actor based in New York.Courtesy Xavier Reyes

“The tone it took, it was leaning more towards ‘let's cancel this movie, that it's not good, let’s not support it,’” he said. “That's why it made me a little sad because I feel like it clouded a beautiful, important moment for BIPOC artists and storytellers,” he said, using an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Others who defended the film felt the criticism missed the fact that one of the lead female characters, Nina, is played by the Bronx-born Dominican singer and actor Leslie Grace, who is Afro Latina.

“If you watch just the first five minutes, you see there's a lot of Afro Latinos in there, dancers, singers, people with one-lines and then you have the leads. You have Leslie Grace, you have Dascha Polanco," said Fanny Grande, a Los Angeles-based Venezuelan American filmmaker and actor.

"What really breaks my heart is that we're telling these beautiful Afro Latinas who are in the film that they're not Black enough. Who are we to say that?” she said.

Jose Gonzalez stands inside Thalia Decoraciones, a small business he owns with his mother in Washington Heights, N.Y.Nicole Acevedo / NBC News

José González, who owns a small decor store with his mother in Washington Heights, saw the film with other neighborhood residents who were invited to the movie’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere in the nearby United Palace Theater in June. He remembers feeling captivated by the choreography filmed inside the neighborhood's Highbridge Pool, with hundreds of Latino and Black dancers.

In his view, the movie could have benefited from darker Afro Latinos in the lead. He also thinks the movie sought to present a more “generalized” version of U.S. Latinos, instead of focusing on the largely Dominican identity that characterizes Washington Heights.

“Although the movie could’ve been more representative, I liked it enough to want to see it again,” González said. He's one of the more than 74,000 Dominicans living in Washington Heights, which is also known as Little Dominican Republic, one of the nation’s largest Dominican American communities. About 21,000 Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Cubans, as well as more than 12,000 Latinos from Central and South America, also live in the neighborhood.

Miranda, creator of "In the Heights," who is of Puerto Rican descent grew up in Washington Heights.

The persistence of colorism

For Grande, a fairer way to discuss the criticism of the movie is by focusing on the persistence of colorism, a form of racism that discriminates against people based on their skin shade or color. For many Afro Latinos, colorism is a double whammy. They’re often deemed too Black to be Latino, and among African Americans, they're seen as Latino.

Colorism has been an issue in Hollywood; only 19 percent of all the Black women cast in leading roles in the last 10 years were dark-skinned, according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

The cast of "In The Heights" during the Tribeca Festival on June 9, 2021 in New York.Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images

A key storyline from the "In the Heights" musical that dealt with colorism was eliminated from the film adaptation, Grande pointed out. In the musical, Nina’s character was lighter skinned, and her parents had an issue with her dating a Black man.

“There was a talk about colorism in the community, which exists, period. It's a big issue," said Grande, who is also the CEO of Avenida Productions.

"An ethnic group is not impervious to issues of racism simply because they, too, are victims of racialization" and discrimination," Fordham University law professor Tanya Hernandez, author of the upcoming book "On Latino Anti-Black Bias: 'Racial Innocence' & The Struggle for Equality," previously told NBC News.

Fanny Grande, a filmmaker and actor based in Los Angeles.Courtesy of Fanny Grande

On the other hand, Grande said she was glad that in the movie version, the studious Nina, who attends the elite Stanford University, was played by Grace, who is Afro Latina.

In one of the scenes from the movie, Nina opens up to her father about a time in which a wealthy donor at Stanford assumed she was a server, and shoved a plate into her arms during a diversity dinner hosted by the school’s dean.

“And all the servers, all Latino, shot me this look, like, ‘Ooh, what’s this ‘trigueña’ gonna do?” Nina tells her father, using a Spanish-language term to refer to her brown skin color and Black roots.

Brown or Black?

Though about a quarter of the nearly 60 million Latinos living in the U.S. identify as Afro Latino, Afro Caribbean or as being of African descent, only 18 percent of Afro Latinos identified as Black, compared to 39 percent who identified as white. Almost a quarter (24 percent) said their race was "Hispanic" — which is an ethnicity, not a race.

The findings point to a nationwide pattern. While most Latinos acknowledge their ethnicity and African roots dating to Latin America's colonial period, which also includes Indigenous and European heritage, many struggle to consider themselves Black.

In Washington Heights, about 62 percent of Latinos identified as mixed-race or as "other" in the 2010 census, which is the most recently available census data on race among Latinos. Only 9.3 percent identified as Black, 27 percent identified as white and nearly 3 percent identified as Indigenous or Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

The movie was filmed in Washington Heights during the summer of 2019, a year before George Floyd's death sparked nationwide protests against racial injustice. Its release in theaters and HBO Max was then delayed until this summer due the Covid-19 pandemic.

"In The Heights" earned $11.5 million in its opening weekend and a total of $24.2 million since it opened. HBO Max has not released viewership data on how many people have seen the film on the streaming platform.

The film's big Latino cast presents a stark contrast; only 4.9 percent of the speaking roles in 2019’s top movies went to Latinos though they're nearly 19 percent of the U.S. population, according to the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Forty-four of the 100 top movies that year had no Latino characters with speaking roles, a rate that did not differ much from 2018 or 2015.

Overall representation for Latinos on television was 5.5 percent throughout 2019, according to a 2020 Nielsen study. During that time, Afro Latinas were "almost invisible" on TV, while Afro Latino males were represented at parity compared to their population estimates, Stacie de Armas, senior vice president of diverse consumer insights and initiatives for Nielsen, previously said in an interview.

Miranda recently told NBC News he hoped "In the Heights" could help make “up for lost time” when it comes to Latino representation. Following the criticism over a lack of a Black Latino main character, he issued an apology saying, “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short.”

For Grande, "In The Heights" should be celebrated while continuing to engage in conversations about colorism and Afro Latino representation, "but not at the cause of having the film fail, because that sends a message."

“Unfortunately, in Hollywood, Latino is a genre, even though it shouldn't be, right? The genre should be musical, comedy, action …. Until we make Latino as a genre thrive, we may not get a lot of films made.”

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