“Immigrants, we get the job done!”
This line, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway juggernaut Hamilton, could just as easily come from In The Heights. In The Heights, the film adaptation of Miranda’s first musical (Hamilton is his second), chronicles the lives of several young people pursuing big dreams while living in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights.
Because of COVID, In The Heights’s theatrical release was pushed back a year, and now the film has unexpectedly found itself being released after Hamilton, which was released on Disney+ last summer. Hamilton’s movie release brought in a wave of new critique and examination on the musical about the American founding fathers. Even if you haven’t watched Hamilton (which I highly recommend!) you’ve probably heard about how it uses hip-hop and rap, and the cast is made up almost entirely of actors of color. One of the most interesting things about watching In The Heights is comparing the two works and seeing Miranda’s underlying interests and philosophies as an artist. Some observations:
- Miranda’s love of the archetypal immigrant tale. In Hamilton, he presents Alexander Hamilton’s story of coming to America from Nevis as an immigrant story, highlighting how all Americans were originally immigrants from Britain/British colonies. In In The Heights, many characters are either first or second-generation Hispanic and Latino immigrants. The emotional show-stopping number “Paciencia Y Fe” is sung by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who tells the story of her mother bringing her to New York City from Cuba and their struggles. Miranda, born in New York City, is a second-generation immigrant; his parents are originally from Puerto Rico.
- The struggle between individual dreams vs looking out for the community. In The Heights has Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) desiring to go back to the Dominican Republic, but eventually he decides to stay in Washington Heights to maintain his father’s bodega, to be a role model to young Sonny, and to care for the neighborhood. In Hamilton, Alexander works tirelessly to build up America, but essentially abandons his wife and family and betrays many of his principles. It’s only his wife Eliza’s forgiveness and mercy towards him which allows for reconciliation with them before his death, and the play presents Alexander’s dreams for personal glory as only worthwhile if they’re in step with uplifting those around him. The play’s focus on the rest of the ensemble subtly subverts the “one great man of history” trope (although the focus on the founding fathers could be seen as actually enforcing that, but that’s another conversation).
- While there are certainly motifs and lyrics that are similar between the two, In The Height’s music is distinct from Hamilton’s through its use of Spanish and Latin-inspired music. While the Hamilton film is just a recording of the Broadway play, In The Heights makes the most of its film format with exciting cinematography and directorial choices.
It’s the excellent directing and beautifully composed musical numbers that sold me on the film. There were times watching In The Heights that my mouth was open in awe. I was having a blast. If you are at all a fan of movie musicals, I think you’ll love In The Heights. And if you don’t like movie musicals… I feel sorry for you.
Since I’m writing this review a few weeks after its release, I can’t talk about the film without addressing the controversy that has soured the film’s run. The film has been accused of colorism because most of the cast are light-skinned actors, while the real neighborhood of Washington Heights has a high population of African American and Afro-Latinx people. Having lighter-skinned actors instead of darker-skinned actors is certainly not original to In The Heights– it’s a widespread Hollywood issue. But In The Heights is seeing more heat for it than most films do. I think partly it’s because movies that are centered on people of color are so rare, they’re more heavily criticized than movies with primarily white casts. In white-ensemble movies, it’s seen as a success just to get a few people of color in there, there’s not even space to consider colorism. This is becoming less true though, so perhaps one positive aspect of this controversy is that going forward movies will be more proactive against colorism.
Another factor at play is the Lin-Manuel Miranda backlash which has built since the Hamilton movie release. Hamilton was genuinely groundbreaking in its mainstream success, and because of that success, it launched Miranda as the face of progressive politics in the mainstream’s perception of theater, and it was a role he embraced. But now he’s not progressive enough for progressives, and since In The Heights is an earlier work of his, there’s more to criticize (I feel this. Don’t go back and read any of my reviews pre-2018!).
While I do think the criticism is warranted (and Miranda has apologized) I also hate to see this movie taken down and all of its positive attributes forgotten. I think many people’s hopes and dreams were pinned on In The Heights, and it is impossible for a single film to carry an entire political agenda on its back. What is possible is for us as audience members to discerningly watch a film and hold in tension both its strengths and shortcomings.
As for In The Height’s strengths, outside of its direction, music, and the sheer joy and energy I felt watching it, there was a specific theme in the film I loved. The residents of Washington Heights face a variety of threats: gentrification, racism, anti-immigration sentiment, poverty. When they face a blackout, characters sing, “We are powerless,” referring not only to the blackout but to the powerlessness they feel in their lives from all of these issues. But Abuela Claudia stirs her family with these words: “[We] assert our dignity in small ways.” Abuela Claudia does this by telling the audience her story in “Paciencia Y Fe.” Daniela does this by encouraging the neighborhood to dance through the blackout in “Carnaval Del Barrio.” And the movie itself is asserting dignity to the characters, the cultures on display, and the neighborhood of Washington Heights by presenting it lovingly in every frame, in every line, in every verse.
It reminded me of the Christian theological term Imago Dei, which is Latin for “Image of God.” It refers to Genesis 1:27, where we are told God created humans “in his image”. All humans are image-bearers of God, and that gives everyone inherent value and dignity. Movies like In The Heights are explicit exercises in seeing the Imago Dei in everyone, especially people who aren’t usually treated with dignity on the big screen.
That’s something worth singing about.