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“In The Heights” is haunted by the history of colourism in Latin AmericaExBulletin

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Singer and actress Leslie Grace plays Nina Rosario (center), the beloved and brilliant neighborhood sweetheart in the film adaptation of the musical In the heights.

Macall Polay / Warner Brothers


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Macall Polay / Warner Brothers


Singer and actress Leslie Grace plays Nina Rosario (center), the beloved and brilliant neighborhood sweetheart in the film adaptation of the musical In the heights.

Macall Polay / Warner Brothers

The Monday following the release of In the heights, its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, posted not a note of congratulations but an apology. Over the weekend, the conversation around colorism and In the heights climaxed as more and more viewers began to wonder why there weren’t dark-skinned Afro-Latinos in any of the lead roles to represent a place as diverse as Washington Heights.

“I try to make room both for the incredible pride of the film we made and to be responsible for our shortcomings”, Miranda said in a statement posted on social networks. “Thank you for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future endeavors, and I am dedicated to the learning and growth we all need to do to ensure we honor our diverse and vibrant community.”

A defining cultural moment, interrupted

Before its release, In the heights was presented as the Latino movie of the season. It featured Latino talent, dozens of Latino extras, was based on a play written by a Latino, Miranda, and its screenplay was written by a Latina, Quiara Alegra Hudes. Jon Chu, the director of the hit Crazy Rich Asians had joined a project that seemed set to succeed.

Personally, the film had me emotionally on its side the moment in the trailer where I saw the Cuban flag fluttering across the screen in a moment of celebration in what would become the delicious “Carnaval del Barrio” number where many different flags of Latin American countries were hoisted as a nod to the representation. How many of us have seen our flags and our culture celebrated and not villainous or otherwise in a Hollywood movie or TV show? Considering how few Latinos even have speaking roles in big movies 5% according to a study by USC Annenberg), it’s not a lot.

When I left the theater the first time I watched In the heights, I left delighted. It sounded like a classic Hollywood musical in Spanish, using the music I grew up listening to and close-ups of the food I would find on my grandparents’ table on Noche Buena. I saw parts of myself and my family reflected in some of the characters.

As he was set to hit theaters and HBO Max, Felice Len, an Afro-Cuban video producer for The Root, asked a question that many of the early press had missed: “Where are all the major dark-skinned Afro-Latinxes?” “

The responses Len received were unsatisfactory. “When we were watching the casting, we were looking for the people who were best for those roles in particular,” Chu said. He cited that Afro-Latinos were in the background as dancers and extras in the beauty salon issue “No Me Diga”. The response that only the most talented were chosen to play these characters was a particularly painful response because part of the problem with colorism is that it denies opportunities to people with darker skin, meaning that the lighter-colored actors or Whites may have had more jobs on their CVs and more experience than their dark-skinned colleagues before even auditioning. It’s not uncommon for dark-skinned artists to be sidelined, while In the heights could be a step forward for some Latino performances, it has left many others behind. “Hire who was best for a role” was also used by white filmmakers to apologize for hiring actors of color.

A story of big screen erasure

When it comes to talking about colorism and In the heights, there are two complicated stories at play. One is that of the systemic problem of racism within the entertainment industry. The privilege of fair or white skin is so ubiquitous that it is part of the very foundations of Hollywood. This is how Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel would only be offered roles as slaves or maids, but Dorothy Dandridge, who continues to face discrimination throughout her career, could be seen as a potential actress. This is why a young aspiring actress named Margarita Carmen Cansino changed her hairline, dyed her locks and renamed herself Rita Hayworth. This is why the actress Merle Oberon hid his biracial origins. This is why Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno played supporting Anita alongside her white co-star Natalie Wood who played the Puerto Rican lead role of Maria in West Side Story.

If only this was a problem stuck in Hollywood’s past, but it continues. When Zoe Saldana was chosen to play Nina Simone, she had to darken her features to do so when the filmmakers could have chosen a darker-skinned actress. by Chu Crazy Rich Asians was also accused of colourism, relegating dark-skinned Asians to the sidelines and leaving part of the public to feel left out. Like Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Aisha Harris noted, Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story Also follows the light-skinned Maria and darker Anita pattern from the original.

Who reflects the Latino community?

The other deeper problem is that of colorism within Latin American and Latin American culture. As part of the region’s colonial heritage, light-skinned and transient Latinos and Latin Americans have earned a social privilege often denied to dark-skinned Afro-Latinos or indigenous peoples. This is why the Latin American media so often featured only blond, blue-eyed crooners, telenovela stars or news anchors.

For example, while Alfonso Cuarn Rome drew attention for choosing an indigenous actress, Yalitza Aparicio, for the lead role in her film, Mexican racists attacked his appearance and at least one magazine cover lightened her photo. These internalized prejudices have followed us wherever we have moved and have proven to be quite compatible with the racism already at work in Hollywood. Part of this weekend’s conversation spread to the two white casting directors, Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey, who may not have been familiar with the cultural nuances they were navigating when choosing actors.

While it is difficult to expect a single work of art to sum up the entirety of the experiences of over 30 different countries and the following diasporas, there should be space for discussion of why this exclusion of Afro-Latinos and indigenous peoples continues. I loved In the heights and I saw myself reflected in the stories of having lofty goals, insecurities about navigating elite institutions, and remembering our families’ pasts with an eye on our future. But that’s because I’m a white Latina too, and while I’ve been frustrated with decades of Latino erasure in Hollywood, I haven’t experienced as much erasure as Afro-Latinos or the peoples indigenous to my community.

Lately there has been a pullback against the concept of latinity because it’s often used to erase people who don’t fit the narrow definition of what a Latino looks like. Latinos are more than a story, a complexion or an umbrella identity. This discussion of colorism aims to recognize those who are already part of our communities and families, to stop relegating dark-skinned, indigenous talent to the outside of the spotlight, and to open doors not just to white Latinos or fair-skinned, but to all of us and our varied backgrounds. In the heights was not going to solve decades of media exclusion and centuries of colourism, but it may perhaps start a movement towards truly inclusive diversity.



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