Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and film director Jon M. Chu are ready to bring Latinos the "Crazy Rich Asians" moment many have been craving.
Chu, who directed "Crazy Rich Asians,” one of 2018’s biggest blockbusters, partnered with Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes to adapt Miranda's Tony-winning musical "In The Heights" into a film set to premiere June 18 in theaters and on HBO Max.
“We're so used to asking for less, just to ask to occupy space. As Latinos, we're like, 'Please just let us make our little movie.' And Jon, on every step of the way, he was like, 'Nope, this is a big movie.' These guys have big dreams, we're allowed to go that big,” Miranda said.
"In The Heights" tells the story of a block that’s disappearing as gentrification begins to take hold of the predominantly Latino neighborhood of New York City's Washington Heights, where the film was shot over two years ago and where Miranda grew up. The film centers on several characters dealing with issues of family, love and community — an ode to the original musical which was highly praised for countering Latino stereotypes.
One of the film’s main characters, Nina, is a studious and ambitious young Latina who goes to Stanford University as the first person in her family to attend college, and everyone in the neighborhood admires her as the "one who made it out."
“The struggle of the first-generation American in the Latino community is not talked about a lot because it's almost like a privilege, but there’s a lot of identity crisis that comes with it,” said Leslie Grace, the Bronx-born Dominican singer and actress who plays Nina. “I'm so blessed to have explored that with Jon, with Lin, with Quiara and all of the cast.”
Anthony Ramos stars as Usnavi, a bodega owner, after recently appearing in the Oscar-winning film “A Star Is Born” and originating the roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in “Hamilton.”
“I've never seen anything where there's 75 Latinos in the middle of the street dancing and singing about pride and where they come from,” Ramos said during the virtual event. “I get emotional when I'm thinking about this movie and what it means to me and the culture,” especially one that continues to be significantly underrepresented in Hollywood films.
Latinos were the only major racial and ethnic group underrepresented in on-screen speaking roles in 2019, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. They found that 44 of the 100 top movies had absolutely no Latino characters with speaking roles, a rate that did not differ much from 2018 (47 movies) or 2015 (40 movies). Only 4.9 percent of the speaking roles in 2019’s top 100 movies went to Latinos, even though they represent nearly 19 percent of the nation's population.
In an effort to curb Latino invisibility in film, Chu said Latinos deserve “a dream musical” focusing on “people in a place where the walls aren’t big enough to contain their hearts, and what does that feel like,” he said. “We get to witness that with this beautiful cast.”
Ramos praised Chu as a “director who only thinks big, who has grand ideas.”
“That's what separates a small movie from a big movie,” he said.
The virtual event Saturday also reunited the film's entire all-star cast, including celebrities such as "The West Wing's" Jimmy Smits, "Orange Is The New Black's" Dascha Polanco, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine's" Stephanie Beatriz, “The Walking Dead’s” Corey Hawkins and Daphne Rubin-Vega, who originated the role of Mimi Marquez in the Broadway musical "Rent."
“This notion of home, of wanting the next generation and your children to do better than you, are concurrent themes in this country, not just for us,” said Smits, who plays Kevin, a hardworking businessman and Nina’s father. “But looking at it with this very specific lens, it does something for us, of course, but it's going to have a universal impact.”
Actress Olga Merediz, who is reprising her beloved role as Abuela Claudia, which she originated in the Broadway version of "In The Heights," also attended the event. Her character is most remembered for her musical number “Paciencia y Fe,” Spanish for patience and faith.
“It’s basically a prayer,” Merediz said. “It's something that gives you strength and it gives you hope. And believe me, during this pandemic, the song ‘Paciencia y Fe’ that Lin-Manuel beautifully wrote has been living in my mind because there wasn't much to hold on to.”
The release of “In The Heights” was postponed multiple times last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But actress Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa, a girl dreaming of becoming a fashion designer and Usnavi's love interest, said she “cannot wait for the world to see this beautiful movie.”
“We made something very special, and it's been a while waiting for it, but I feel like now the time is going to fly by until June,” said Barrera, also known for her starring role in STARZ’s TV show "Vida."
“I started writing this film when I was 19 years old. I just turned 41,” Miranda said. “To imagine 500 people dancing to your music in the middle of Highbridge Park…. It’s a dream come true.”