My heart is broken.
I loved In the Heights the first time I saw it, on a big screen at a London press screening. It is — in the single word that so many other critics have rightly deployed — joy. Pure joy. It is singing and dancing. It is life and love. It is food and family. It is heritage and community in all its complexity: as the place you come from and the place you want to escape, until maybe you don’t, until you realize you can’t, until you realize that you are inextricably a part of it, and it inextricably a part of you, and that you must reconcile all its confusions and conundrums in order to find your own peace. It is all those things — dawning self-awareness, the possibility of newfound contentment — as joy itself.
Caught up in my initial emotional response to Heights was that it made me a bit homesick for New York, my hometown. Now, I’m not from Washington Heights, the way-upper-Manhattan neighborhood of the title. I’m not Hispanic or Latino, as Washington Heights is these days. The immigrant experience of those who live in the Heights now* is not the same as the immigrant experience of my Irish and Swedish grandparents (some of whom lived in that general vicinity in the interwar and postwar periods, before the area became a victim of white flight.) But… if those experiences aren’t identical, they definitely rhyme. Immigrants everywhere — no matter where they come from or where they go to — share a sense of dislocation and divided loyalties that can be difficult to resolve, even to subsequent generations. And New York City is New York City: the tiny apartment kitchens, the sweltering summers and the box fans in the windows off the fire escape, the they-have-a-bit-of-everything bodegas. The Mister Softee ice-cream trucks!
(*Or even 20ish years ago. The temporal setting of the film is not mentioned, but it could be in the early 2000s, particularly with its centerpiece of a days-long power blackout, which did really happen in the summer of 2003.)
Also: I’m an immigrant myself, having lived in London for more than 10 years now. And all those confusions and conundrums? I haven’t reconciled them yet. I haven’t found my own peace. I’m still not sure where I belong. So it’s possible I was a little bit jealous of the joy everyone in this gorgeous movie finds for themselves.
I loved In the Heights the second time I saw it — on HBO Max from the US, where it is streaming through July 11th (though see it on a big screen if you have any inclination to see it at all) — but all during that second viewing, my mind was full of the wholly justified criticisms of Afro-Latino New Yorkers who wondered why Black Latinos had been all but erased from In the Heights, an especially egregious omission when Washington Heights is primarily populated by Afro-Latinos from the Dominican Republic.
So my heart is broken for those who thought they might see people who looked like them represented onscreen, and were let down.
And I’m embarrassed that this appalling omission is something that utterly failed to register with me on that first viewing. And I’m angry that part of the reason for that is that Black faces have been omitted from our screens in any meaningful way for so long that even I, as a cultural critic who would like to think I am attuned to this stuff, still missed it. Because I was overwhelmed by the fact that, in this entertainment environment, even with its failings in this regard, Heights still gives us more brown and Black faces than most mainstream movies manage.
None of this is to say that In the Heights is any less worth your time and attention. It just means that the work it is doing is far from done.
Just as he did with his Crazy Rich Asians, director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2, Jem and the Holograms) has harnessed Golden Age Hollywood verve and style to transport us to world slightly to the side of our own, where sweeping emotion takes glorious expression in fantastical arrays of song and dance. This may be based on a stage musical — the one Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived of and wrote the tunes and lyrics for before he went on to his even more stupendously successful Hamilton — but Heights often feels cinematic in a way that it must have been difficult to achieve onstage. (I have not seen the stage version.) A swimming pool–set number cheekily borrows imagery from those opulent sequences of black-and-white old, the camera looking down on aquatic dancers from above. Another dance number has a couple defying gravity to step off a fire escape and swing each other around on the side of an apartment building. It’s breathtaking, and completely enrapturing.
But this isn’t wholly fantasy. The people here may have love and support in abundance, but they are not financially wealthy. They’re struggling. (One song is about everyone pondering what they’d do with a comparatively modest lottery win, nowhere near millions.) Everyone here is at crossroads in their lives, ones that aren’t only about money but are nevertheless made more difficult by the lack of it.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos: Trolls: World Tour, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is about to return to the Dominican Republic to take over the beachside bar that his now-deceased father once owned. He currently runs the neighborhood bodega, the small corner convenience store that eventually everyone stops in for a coffee to get going in the morning, a soda on a hot day, or one of those someone’s-gotta-win lottery tickets. The whole street is his family, whether they’re actually related — like his teenaged cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV: Carrie Pilby), who works in the store with him — or informally, like Abuela (Olga Merediz: The Light of the Moon, Top Five), who is practically everyone’s grandma (that’s what “abuela” means), and Nina (Leslie Grace), whom he considers a little sister. Nina has just returned from her first year at Stanford University, and is torn about going back in the fall; the burden of the expectations of success that her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Jane Austen Book Club), who runs the local car service, and the whole damn neighborhood have put on her might be too much for her to bear. Benny (Corey Hawkins: Kong: Skull Island, Straight Outta Compton), who works for Kevin, is love with Nina. Usnavi is in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of a career as a fashion designer, but can’t bring himself to ask her out. Vanessa works, with Carla (Stephanie Beatriz: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Ice Age: Collision Course) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco: Joy), in the beauty salon run by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega: Jack Goes Boating, Sex and the City: The Movie), who can’t afford her newly jacked-up rent and is about to move her salon up to the Bronx.
It’s a wonderful soap opera in which everyone expresses their anguish, which abounds, and their triumphs, when they come, through song and dance, to infectious transported-from-the-tropics beats. Chu captures the heat of the sweltering summer streets — an onscreen legend informs us of the temperature: 82º, 93º, 106º! — and the rhythm of life here, as when the magnificent dragon-lady nails of the gals in the salon drum out an accompaniment to an especially catchy tune. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, working from her book for the stage version, sketches small supporting characters vividly: Piragüero (Miranda: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Moana), which is not a name but a label for the guy who sells syrup-sweetened ices from his pushcart; Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala), who manages to be both an annoyance and an inspiration. The promise and the peril of New York City is on full display, perhaps most poignantly in how the subway becomes a metaphor for life: for, literally, going places in the world, and, figuratively and evocatively, for moving beyond the world.
In the Heights is not perfect — the aforementioned representation issue is a problem; maybe some of the lyrics are a little too on the nose? — and yet it’s perfect anyway. As with everyone onscreen here, its flaws and insecurities are part of what makes it so beautiful and so human. We can do better… and yet, this is very much an example of our best at work.
Watch the first eight minutes of In the Heights: