The backlash against Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, explained

The film adaptation of the musical has drawn criticism for not featuring Afro-Latino performers in prominent roles.

Abrar Al-Heeti Technology Reporter
Abrar Al-Heeti is a technology reporter for CNET, with an interest in phones, streaming, internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. She's also worked for CNET's video, culture and news teams. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
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Creators of In the Heights are being called out for their casting choices.

Warner Bros.

In the Heights, the highly anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical, is stirring up strong reactions since opening in theaters and hitting HBO Max last week. The movie takes place in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood and stars Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, a bodega owner dreaming (and singing) about a better life. 

CNET reviewer Steph Panecasio calls the film a "high-energy love letter" to the Latino community, but some viewers have expressed dismay that In the Heights falls short when it comes to Afro-Latino representation. Members of that community make up a significant portion of the real Washington Heights, but instead of having lead roles in the film, darker-skinned, Afro-Latino performers have background and dance roles. 

"Y'all don't understand this isn't about diversity," one tweet reads. "We are asking why a film about DOMINICANS in the HEIGHTS doesn't look anything like Dominicans or the Heights. Dominicans are mostly black. The Heights is mostly [a] black Dominican neighborhood."

Another tweet (which uses the gender-neutral term Latinx) reads: "Dark skinned Afro-Latinx actors are put into boxes where they can't even audition for Latinx roles."

In a June 9 article, Felice León of publication The Root wrote, "Throughout history, there has been the exclusion of and violence towards Blackness within Latinidad. Homogeneity and the illusion of a 'race-free culture' within Latinidad is a myth."

Actress Rita Moreno also commented on the criticism before later walking back her comments in a tweet

Here's how everyone from critics to the film's creators to Moreno have responded to the controversy. 

What have people said about Afro-Latino representation in the film?

Following critical acclaim for In the Heights (it earned a Metacritic score of 84), some viewers were quick to express their disappointment at the lack of Black Latino representation. 

"I enjoyed the movie/love the musical," author Roxane Gay wrote. "But it makes no sense to erase the AfroLatinx community who should have been broadly represented in lead and secondary roles. It's egregious. And it cancels out the enjoyment!"

Many people acknowledged the importance of the film in showcasing the diversity of Latino communities and celebrating Latino culture in such a vibrant way. USA Today's reviewer lauded it for capturing "the bustling, changing multicultural Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan with a dizzying array of song and dance styles, from hip-hop to Latin influences." 

Still, some people struggled to contend with the absence of Afro-Latino people in lead roles.

"No movie can be everything to all people, and a movie like In The Heights carries perhaps an unfair burden in certain respects," another tweet reads. "But I do think it's fair to question how colorism, unconscious or no, may have played a part behind the scenes."

One tweet said, "I really enjoyed ITH. It also failed its Afro-Latinx audience. Hollywood's commitment to white supremacy and colorism is exhausting & at this point, indefensible."

Others felt criticism was being disproportionately directed at creators of color like Miranda. 

"I think the colorism critique of in the heights is definitely a valid discussion but also I feel like there's this tendency to hyper-criticize creators of color while letting white people get away with the same old racist shit they've always been doing," one tweet reads.

What did Lin-Manuel Miranda say about the colorism accusations? 

Miranda responded to the criticism on Monday, posting an apology to Twitter: "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 lead roles. ... In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I'm truly sorry."

In the interview with The Root, Jon M. Chu (who directed the In the Heights adaptation, as well as Crazy Rich Asians) responded to a question on the lack of Black Latino representation in In the Heights by saying, "That was something we talked about and I needed to be educated about. In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people who were best for those roles."

What did Rita Moreno say about the In the Heights pushback?

While appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Tuesday, Moreno, who's Puerto Rican, commented on the criticism aimed at Miranda. "You can never do right, it seems. ... Can't you just wait a while and leave it alone?" she said. "There's a lot of people who are Puertorriqueño, who are also from Guatemala, who are dark and who are also fair. We are all colors in Puerto Rico. This is how it is. It would be so nice if they hadn't come up with that and left it alone, just for now. They're really attacking the wrong person."

That reaction drew criticism on Twitter, with one person writing: "I love Rita Moreno but this is the opposite of it. We have had a century of movie roles being reserved for the lightest skinned Latino, Black & Asian ppl. This is not breaking new ground & there is nothing for dark skinned ppl to be waiting for."

Another tweet reads: "'Can't you just wait a while?' 'we are all colors in puerto rico!' HUH??? Rita Moreno, we know there's all colors, but WHY aren't they portrayed accurately in TV and film then?? We know there's Afro-latinos in Washington Heights and it's crazy they were not there."

Moreno later tweeted a follow-up, writing: "I'm incredibly disappointed with myself. While making a statement in defense of Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Colbert Show last night, I was clearly dismissive of black lives that matter in our Latin community. It is so easy to forget how celebration for some is lament for others.

"In addition to applauding Lin for his wonderful movie version of In The Heights, let me add my appreciation for his sensitivity and resolve to be more inclusive of the Afro-Latino community going forward."

In the Heights raked in $11.4 million in its first four days, according to Variety, falling behind earlier expectations it would generate $20 million. WarnerMedia hasn't shared viewership numbers for streams on its HBO Max service. 

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