Singer and actress Leslie Grace plays Nina Rosario (center), the beloved and brilliant neighborhood lover in the film adaptation of the musical In the Heights. Macall Polay / Warner Brothers hide caption
Macall Poland / Warner Brothers
Macall Poland / Warner Brothers
On the Monday after In the Heights was released, its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, wrote no congratulations, but did An apology. Over the weekend, the conversation about colorism and In the Heights reached a climax as more and more viewers wondered why there weren’t any dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in any of the leading roles, representing a place as diverse as Washington Heights.
“I try to hold space for the incredible pride in the film we made and to be responsible for our shortcomings,” he said. Miranda said in a statement published on social media. “Thank you for your honest feedback. I promise to get better on my future projects and I am dedicated to the learning and advancement we all must do to ensure we honor our diverse and vibrant community.”
A groundbreaking cultural moment, interrupted
Prior to its release, In the Heights was touted as the Latino Movie of the Season. It played Latino talent, it had dozens of Latino extras based on a play written by a Latino, Miranda, and the screenplay was written by a Latina, Quiara Alegría Hudes. Jon Chu, the director of the hit Crazy Rich Asians, had joined a project that seemed on the road to success.
Personally, the movie had me emotionally on its side when in the trailer I saw the Cuban flag fluttering on the screen in a moment of celebration in what would become the adorable “Carnaval del Barrio” number that became many different flags of Latin American countries hoisted as an allusion to the representation. How many of us had seen our flags and culture celebrated in a Hollywood movie or television show rather than denigrating or otherwise insulting us? When you consider how few Latinos even have speaking roles in major studio films (roughly 5 percent according to a USC Annenberg study), is not much.
The first time I left the theater when I saw “In the Heights” I was delighted. It felt like a classic Hollywood musical on Spanglish, with the music I grew up with and close-ups of the food I found on my grandparents’ table at Noche Buena. I saw parts of myself and my family reflected in some of the characters.
When it was nearing HBO Max’s theatrical release, Felice León, an Afro-Cuban video producer for The Root, asked a question that many of the early press had overlooked: “Where are all the leading dark skinned Afro-Latinx people?”
The answers that León received were unsatisfactory. “When we looked at the cast, we looked for the people who would be best suited specifically for those roles,” Chu said. He quoted that Afro-Latinos were in the background as dancers and extras in the beauty salon number “No Me Diga”. The response that only the most talented were chosen to play these characters was a particularly painful response, as part of the problem with colorism is that it denies chances to darker complexions, meaning that lighter or whiter actors may have more jobs had on their résumé and had more experience than their dark-skinned counterparts before the audition. It’s not uncommon for dark-skinned performers to be relegated to the sidelines. While In the Heights might be a step forward for some Latinos, it has nonetheless left many others behind. “Hiring Who Was Best for a Role” was also used by white filmmakers to excuse themselves from hiring actors of color.
A widescreen story of the deletion
When it comes to colorism and In the Heights, two complicated stories play a role. One of them is the systemic problem of racism in the entertainment industry. Fair-skinned or white privileges are so ubiquitous that they are firmly entrenched in Hollywood. That way, Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel would only be offered roles as a slave or servant, but Dorothy Dandridge, who has been subject to discrimination throughout her career, could be seen as a potential lead actress. Because of this, a young aspiring actress named Margarita Carmen Cansino changed her hairline, dyed her curls and renamed herself Rita Hayworth. Therefore an actress Merle Oberon hid her biracial origin. Because of this, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno played Anita, a supporting role, alongside her white co-star Natalie Wood, who played the leading Puerto Rican role of Maria in West Side Story.
If that was just a problem stuck in Hollywood’s past but it goes on. When Zoe Saldana was cast for the role of Nina Simone, she had to darken her facial features if the filmmakers could have cast a darker actress. Chus Crazy Rich Asians was also accused of colorism, banish dark-skinned Asians and let parts of the audience feel excluded. As pop culture happy hour’s Aisha Harris noticed, Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story also follows the light-skinned Maria and darker Anita models of the original.
Who Reflects the Latino Community?
The other deeper problem is that of colorism within US Latino and Latin American cultures. As part of the region’s colonial heritage, fair-skinned or white-skinned Latinos and Latin Americans have earned a social privilege that is often denied to dark-skinned Afro-Latinos or indigenous peoples. That is why the Latin American media so often only featured blonde, blue-eyed pop singers, telenovela stars or news anchors.
For example, while Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma attracted attention by casting an indigenous actress, Yalitza Aparicio, as the lead actress in his film, Mexican racists attacked her appearance and at least one magazine cover brightened up her photo. These internalized prejudices have haunted us everywhere we went, and went pretty well with the racism that’s already at play in Hollywood. Some of the conversation this weekend has spread to two white casting directors, Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey, who may not have been aware of the cultural nuances they pursued when selecting actors.
It is difficult to expect a single work of art to sum up the totality of experiences from over 30 different countries and later diasporas, but there should be room for discussion as to why this exclusion of Afro-Latinos and indigenous peoples continues. I loved In the Heights and saw myself reflected in the stories of ambitious goals, uncertainties in navigating elite institutions, and remembering our families’ pasts with our future in mind. But that’s because I’m a white Latina too, and while I’m frustrated with the decades of extinction of Latinos in Hollywood, I haven’t seen nearly as much extinction as Afro-Latinos or indigenous peoples in my community.
Lately there has been a pushback against that Concept of latinidad because it is often used to obliterate people who do not fit into the narrow definition of a Latino. Latinos are so much more than a story, skin tone, or umbrella identity. This discussion of colorism is about recognizing those who are already in our communities and families, stopping the spotlight on dark-skinned and indigenous talent, and doors not just for white or light-skinned Latinos, but for all of us and ours open to diverse experiences. In the Heights shouldn’t solve decades of media exclusion and centuries of colorism, but perhaps it can start a movement towards truly inclusive diversity.