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“In the Heights” colorism controversy and why accurate representation is important

Recently, the newly released film adaption of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical–In the Heights–has received some controversy regarding the film’s casting choices and lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx actors, with critics citing colorism as the root cause of the inaccurate representation of the historic NYC neighborhood.

In the Heights, colorism controversy

In the Heights faces blacklash regarding colorism controversy. (Image Source)

Set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, the film’s themes celebrate diversity and identity. However, audiences were quick to notice the lack of dark-skinned Latinos in lead roles. Instead, all of the main Latinx characters are portrayed by light-skinned or white-passing actors. Viewers took to social media to voice their feelings and bring attention to the longstanding issue of colorism in Hollywood. 

In the Heights follows the lives of various Latinx characters living in Washington Heights, weaving their stories together in a celebration of Latin pride and Latinx stories. However, the film adaptation notably lacks dark-skinned Afro-Latinx main characters, creating an inaccurate portrayal of the NYC neighborhood. Described as a “melting pot” by In the Heights actress Melissa Barrera, Washington Heights, the film fails to portray an accurate “mosaic of this community.” 

While the film maintains a high rating on critic site, Rotten Tomatoes, and has favored well with general audiences, the issue of colorism remains a valid criticism and an important conversation to be had. 

Commenting on the controversy, actress Melissa Barrera said that “the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there. A lot of darker skinned people. And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent,” clarifying, “Because the cast ended up being us, and because Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like.”

It is true that there were dark-skinned performers in the group numbers as background dancers, but this only further highlights the key issue: there were none in lead roles. To dark-skinned Afro-Latinx viewers this sends the message that their lives and their stories are not important. It tells them that they are only “background” characters in the lives of light-skinned and white people. The film’s only dark-skinned character is Benny, played by non-Latino actor Corey Hawkins. In the musical, Benny pursues a romance with Nina, though he is viewed as an outsider by Nina’s father because he is not Latino. Being the only dark-skinned character in the main cast, this sends another message to audiences, that dark-skinned people are “outsiders” or don’t belong in Latino communities, which could not be farther from the truth. 

In our current socio-political climate, where race issues are at the forefront, this significant lack of dark-skinned Afto-Latinx actors in a film about a historically diversey neighborhood cannot be ignored. Movements like Black Lives Matter have made it clear that there is still so much work to be done regarding the treatment of Black lives in our society. The lack of visibility of Black lives and Black stories in our media is just one of many symptoms of systemic racism. Just as systemic racism prevents Black individuals from accessing resources, education, and employment due to long standing biases ingrained in our culture, Hollywood, too, is affected. 

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As Melissa Barrera pointed out in her statement, the audition process included many Afro-Latinx actors auditioning for lead roles. However, not a single one made it to the big screen. Why? Some may say it was down to talent, but there are many, many talented dark-skinned actors in Hollywood, so one has to wonder why they were not given the same opportunity to star in the film as light-skinned and white Latinx actors. 

In the Heights creator and American actor, singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, and playwright, Lin Manuel Miranda. (Image Source)

In a Twitter statement addressing the colorism controversy, Lin Manuel Miranda expressed his deep apology for the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx representation in the film. 

“I started writing In the Heights because I didn’t feel seen,” he says. “And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen. I’m seeing the discussion around Afro-Latino representation in our film this weekend, and it is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it, particularly among the leading roles. I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling unseen in the feedback. I hear that, without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the world feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.”

“In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening. I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings. Thank you for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”