Written by: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz
Maintaining a dream, no matter how big or small, has the ability to define the fight one has in their life. No matter the bumps and bruises collected along the way, as long as that dream stays within eyesight, you can continue on. In the Heights beautifully weaves the small and vast dreams of its characters into a celebration of Latinx culture by forming a gorgeous tapestry of regional pride, unlike any other film.
In the busy and bustling Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) dreams of returning back to the Dominican Republic to rebuild his father’s legacy. Also on his block the dreams of fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and Stanford student Nina (Leslie Grace) all face grave challenges as what they hope to achieve begins to fade just like their neighborhood.
Stating this with full disclosure, everything In the Heights seeks to accomplish and represents hits me on a personal level because of my own connection to this area and the particular struggles captured in this feature. As someone who has family who came from the Dominican Republic, settled in Washington Heights and dreamed for more, this film just needed to be halfway decent for me to love it. Thankfully, the end product reveals an emphatic success in musical filmmaking, as it brings such an incredible amount of energy in its sequences and a resounding level of love between all of the characters in such a meaningful way.
While several perspectives and struggles get captured throughout this narrative, the focal points of the story remain Usnavi, Vanessa, and Nina. Their three journeys throughout the story symbolize so much about the Latinx experience in this country and the way they each get handled shows a level of deftness from the original source material and the way it gets captured here on the big screen. You have Usnavi trying to return to the motherland to accomplish a dream he does not see possible in the land of opportunity, Vanessa wants to leave her area because she sees herself finding success downtown in “whiter” spaces, and then you have Nina with her all-too-familiar struggle of being one of a handful Latinx students at a predominantly white institution like Stanford, which emotionally pushes her back to her people. In the oddest ways, I could relate to all three of their stories because they result as a matter of conditioning as well as douses of reality to show perhaps not everything out in the world will be as rosy as Nina’s family believes it will be.
The way each of their stories plays out and hits pressure points in the narrative brings such an authentic feel to the film overall. However, you also have the more minor storylines, which deliver just as much of an emotional punch of individuals like Benny (Corey Hawkins), Claudia (Olga Merediz), Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and even the piragua man (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Each having their moment in the hot summer sun, every thread brings a resounding message of what Washington Heights means to them and whether or not they see it in their future through their choice or other economical restrictions. None of their stories feel underserved with each having a defining musical sequence that dazzles the screen.
As you can imagine, the success of the musical sequences helps define what makes a good musical and all of them in this feature captures the emotion of the characters and deliver a powerful sense of energy enough to even turn on the lights during a blackout. The opening titular number shows a segment of the population getting ready for another day of work. The beauty in this sequence demonstrates how it resembles typical American life, but also how the Latinx people of this country have made it their own through traditions and little rituals. All of it builds up to the dancing sequence dropping the title of the feature demonstrating quite the ride will be on and the momentum never dulls as these musical sequences continue. Others like “96,000” allow these characters to potentially formulate their wildest dreams even if for a second, but the best of them proved to be “Carnaval Del Barrio.” An unflinchingly beautiful representation of Latinx pride with all of the flag-waving and raw energy of a people unwilling to let their circumstances keep them down for too long. Each musical sequence lands with its purpose, even if it may feel that there are one too many. However, the pacing of this feature whips right along to alleviate any real lull in the story.
Bringing this story to life comes with its controversy with the valid complaint of a lack of Afro-Latinx representation in the principal cast, especially in an area of New York primarily inhabited by Dominican folks, who typically have a darker complexion. It raises some major red flags about why most of the cast members fall on the lighter side with all of the darker-skinned individuals pretty much relegated to background dancers. It also does not help that a plotline from the Broadway play centered on colorism featuring Benny and Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) gets cut out of the adaptation. It makes for a messy colorism sandwich, which allows for further dialogue of how this impacts the Latinx community and how better must be done to accurately represent these stories on a broader scale. With all of this being said, this controversial aspect does not undo all of the wonderful things this film brings to life and it’s difficult to rest the blame on the actors, who have these roles serving as their breakout in Hollywood. From Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace showing they have superstar potential and then more established actors like Jimmy Smits, Corey Hawkins, and Stephanie Beatriz. This cast definitely brings the heat and dutifully captures the dreams and pain of their individual characters in a resounding manner.
While admittedly not being the biggest fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapping, which Anthony Ramos and Gregory Diaz IV do their best to make sound good, so much of the music, love and energy of this feature becomes difficult to hate. The textured nature of this film utilizes Washington Heights as the centerpiece of this story where I could point out all of the places where these characters interacted and could recall a time I personally spent there. Its relatability impacts me on a personal level, but also on a grander scale for Latinx individuals all across the country. Having a film with this amount of unfettered joy and celebratory zeal feels all too rare for this community, which has endured so much and I will allow myself to get sentimental about what this represents. Beautifully enjoyable, hitting the entire spectrum of emotions.