Can a movie bring joy and spark a Latin conversation about race?



Nidia Bello sees plenty of visitors walking around her New York bodega, or market, after it was featured in the new movie “In The Heights.”

The Dominican American business owner described a recent conversation with a man and his young daughter as they toured his Washington Heights neighborhood.

“She had seen the movie 12 times already,” Bello said of the girl.

Nidia Bello, stands behind the counter of her bodega in Washington Heights, NYNicole acevedo

As the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed Broadway musical reaches its final week in theaters and on HBO Max, the Warner Bros. has garnered praise from Latinos who are delighted to see themselves portrayed onscreen as smart, ambitious, and masters of their lives.

“In The Heights” tells the story of a multigenerational community of Latino residents and business owners grappling with the realities of rising rents, college costs, prejudice, and the pull of their home country. ‘origin. But they also know what they want to accomplish and how to achieve it, with an ending that speaks of progress and finding your place, even in a city as difficult as New York.

But the film also sparked debate following criticism that various Black Latino main characters were missing. Critics have pointed out that a film centered around a predominantly Dominican neighborhood – the Dominican Republic is a country with strong African roots – should have included more Afro Latinos in the lead roles. Although one of the main characters in the film is a black man, he is not Latino.

Fans like Xavier Reyes are worried about how recent reviews seem to have overshadowed some of the film’s big breakthroughs. The New York-based Puerto Rican actor said “In The Heights” had left him “speechless.”

“I cried. I laughed. I was overwhelmed with energy,” he said, adding that he was surprised by the conversations about Afro-Latino representation.

Xavier Reyes, a Puerto Rican actor based in New York.Courtesy of Xavier Reyes

“The tone he took, he leaned more towards ‘let’s cancel this movie, it’s not good, let’s not support it’,” he said. “That’s why it made me a little sad because I feel like it overshadowed a beautiful and important moment for the artists and storytellers at BIPOC,” he said, using a acronym for Blacks, Aboriginals and People of Color.

Others who championed the film felt that critics missed the fact that one of the main female characters, Nina, is played by the Dominican-born Dominican singer and actress, Leslie Grace, who is Afro Latina.

“If you only watch the first five minutes you see that there are a lot of Afro Latinos in there, dancers, singers, people with simple lines and then you have the lead roles. You have Leslie Grace, you have Dascha Polanco, “said Fanny Grande, a Venezuelan filmmaker and actress based in Los Angeles.

“What really breaks my heart is that these beautiful Afro Latinas who are in the movie are being told that they are not black enough. Who are we to say that?” she said.

Jose Gonzalez stands inside Thalia Decoraciones, a small business he owns with his mother in Washington Heights, NYNicole Acevedo / NBC News

José González, who owns a small home decor store with his mother in Washington Heights, saw the film with fellow locals who were invited to the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival at the nearby United Palace Theater in June. He recalls being captivated by the choreography filmed inside the neighborhood’s Highbridge Pool, with hundreds of Latino and black dancers.

In his opinion, the film could have benefited from darker-headed Afro Latinos. He also believes the film sought to present a more “generalized” version of American Latinos, instead of focusing on the largely Dominican identity that characterizes Washington Heights.

“While the film could have been more representative, I liked it enough to want to see it again,” González said. He is one of over 74,000 Dominicans living in Washington Heights, also known as the Little Dominican Republic, one of the largest Dominican communities in America. About 21,000 Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Cubans, as well as more than 12,000 Latinos from Central and South America, also live in the neighborhood.

Miranda, creator of “In the Heights”, of Puerto Rican descent, grew up in Washington Heights.

The persistence of colourism

For Grande, a fairer way to discuss the film’s criticism is to focus on the persistence of colourism, a form of racism that discriminates against people based on their undertone or skin color. For many Afro Latinos, colorism is a double whammy. They are often considered too black to be Latino, and among African Americans they are considered Latinos.

Colorism has been a problem in Hollywood; only 19% of all black women portrayed in leading roles in the past 10 years were dark skinned, according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

The cast of “In The Heights” at the Tribeca Festival on June 9, 2021 in New York City.Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images

A key script for the musical “In the Heights” that dealt with colorism was dropped from the film adaptation, Grande said. In the musical, Nina’s character had lighter skin, and her parents had a problem with her with a black man.

“There was a discussion about colorism in the community, which does exist, period. It’s a big deal, ”said Grande, who is also the CEO of Avenida Productions.

“An ethnic group is not immune to problems of racism simply because it too is the victim of racialization” and discrimination “, Fordham University law professor Tanya Hernandez, author of the upcoming book” On Latino Anti -Black Bias: ‘Racial Innocence’ & The Struggle for Equality, “NBC News previously reported.

Fanny Grande, filmmaker and actress based in Los Angeles.Courtesy of Fanny Grande

On the flip side, Grande said she was happy that in the film version, the studious Nina, who attends elite Stanford University, was played by Grace, who is Afro Latina.

In one of the scenes from the film, Nina tells her father about a time when a wealthy Stanford donor assumed she was a waitress and hugged her a plate at a diversity dinner hosted by the Dean. from school.

“And all the waiters, all Latinos, gave me that look, like ‘Ooh, what is this’ trigueña’ going to do?” Nina tells her father, using a term in Spanish to refer to her brown skin color and black roots.

Brown or Black?

Although about a quarter of the nearly 60 million Latinos living in the United States identify as Afro-Latinos, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent, only 18% of Afro-Latinos identified as black, compared with 39. % who identified as white. Almost a quarter (24%) said their race was “Hispanic” – which is an ethnicity, not a race.

The results indicate a trend nationwide. While most Latinos recognize their ethnicity and African roots dating back to the colonial period of Latin America, which also includes Indigenous and European heritage, many find it difficult to consider themselves black.

In Washington Heights, about 62% of Latinos identified as mixed race or “other” in the 2010 census, which is the latest available census data on race among Latinos. Only 9.3 percent identified as black, 27 percent identified as white and nearly 3 percent identified as Native or Asian American and Pacific Islander.

The film was shot in Washington Heights in the summer of 2019, a year before George Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests against racial injustice. Its theatrical and HBO Max release was then postponed to this summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In The Heights” earned $ 11.5 million on its opening weekend and a total of $ 24.2 million since opening. HBO Max has not released audience data on how many people saw the movie on the streaming platform.

The great Latino cast of the film presents a stark contrast; only 4.9% of the speaking roles in the best films of 2019 went to Latinos despite making up nearly 19% of the American population, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California. Forty-four of this year’s Top 100 movies had no Latino characters with speaking roles, a rate that wasn’t much different from 2018 or 2015.

The overall representation of Latinos on television was 5.5% throughout 2019, according to a 2020 Nielsen study. Meanwhile, Afro Latinas were “almost invisible” on television, while Afro-Latino men were represented at par with their population estimates, said Stacie de Armas, senior vice president of various consumer ideas and initiatives for Nielsen, in an interview.

Miranda recently told NBC News that she hopes “In the Heights” can help “catch up on lost time” when it comes to Latino representation. Following criticism of the absence of a Black Latino main character, he apologized, saying, “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we have failed.”

For Grande, “In The Heights” should be celebrated while continuing to engage in conversations about Afro-Latino colourism and portrayal, “but not because of the film’s failure, because it sends a message.”

“Unfortunately, in Hollywood, Latin is a genre, although it shouldn’t be, right? The genre must be musical, comedy, action…. Until we make Latin as a genre thrive, we might not be making a lot of movies. “

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