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‘In the Heights’ Is A Spirited Celebration Of Latino Joy – Review

The highly anticipated musical, In the Heights, is finally here. The film is an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly acclaimed musical theater production that premiered on Broadway back in 2008. The production skyrocketed Miranda’s career, which allowed him to follow up with the phenomenon that is Hamilton. Now, Warner Brothers are reaping the rewards with a stacked musical that offers audiences all the high notes of a joyous, relevant, and exuberant summer movie.

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.)

Latino audiences have long been ignored by Hollywood, especially in higher-budget movies. Although Latinos make up the largest minority audience of the domestic box office, they are hardly ever the leads of the year’s major films. A study released in 2019 by USC professor Stacy L. Smith, uncovered a long history of ignorance and stereotypes being perpetuated by the majority of top-grossing films. From 2017 to 2018, only 3% of movies featured Latinos in a leading role, and from 2007 to 2018 only 4.5% featured any sort of speaking role for Latino characters. Although nearly 25% of the yearly domestic box office is made up of the Latino demographic. All these numbers are important because Latinos are one of the highest growing populations in the U.S. making up nearly half of the Los Angeles population and yet, receive the least representation on screen. The little representation we do receive is overwhelmingly dominated by a typecast or stereotype to top it all off. Over 60% of Latino roles were somehow involved in gang activity. 

This is all relevant because although it is 2021, the excitement for In the Heights, cannot be separated from the fact that this is finally a moment where Latinos are being celebrated on the big screen. The years spent praising the bare minimum when it came to Latino representation are taking a backseat to the truly refreshing tribute that In the Heights gives to Latino audiences. The film takes you to the predominately Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights, where dancing, music, and jubilation breaks through the screen. The film opens with Latino workers of all kinds joining in on the joy of being Latino and openly celebrating their heritage in whatever role they have in life. 

Noah Catala as Graffiti Pete, Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, Corey Hawkins as Benny and Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.)

Our protagonist, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), tells us the story of how he inherited this cultural pride from his late parents, and how they loved showcasing their Dominican heritage in any way they could. This adoration Usnavi has for his parents turns into his lifelong dream, where he would go back to the Dominican Republic and open his own business in honor of them. Usnavi moved to the U.S. when he was eight years old, so his memories of the island are only that of childhood joy. While preparing to leave, he bids a final farewell to his beloved neighborhood with a flurry of musical numbers all honoring each friend, neighbor, and family member who helped him reach where he is now.

The musical numbers and direction intersect perfectly throughout the film. Never afraid to break into song at any given moment. Jon M. Chu offers each song featured a unique twist by the way he chooses to shoot the scenes. Whether it be characters breaking the laws of gravity or colorful graphics magically appearing on the screen, the creative team was not hesitant to go above and beyond; fully taking advantage of the freedom that the musical genre offers. 

Dascha Polanco as Cuca, Stephanie Beatriz as Carla, and Leslie Grace as Nina. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Beyond all the flashy camera turns and dance moves, where In the Heights truly stands out is with its stellar cast of characters. Every major character has a special moment or trait that differentiates them for the rest. From the passionate father, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), to the sassy salon owner, Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega); hell, even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s bit role as “Paragua Guy” feels like a fleshed-out character. The presence of the charismatic cast is felt in every song, dance, or intimate moment. Stephanie Beatriz has particularly memorable as the comedic relief, Carla, whose contagious energy radiates through the screen.

I had the honor of seeing this with my very proud Latina mother, who raised me with tremendous Latino pride, she turned to me after the first musical number and summed up the movie perfectly, “nada como la alegría Latina” or “there’s nothing quite like Latino joy.” That’s what In the Heights is, “Latino Joy.”

A passionate celebration of Latino expression and identity. Filled with music styles of all different nations, Spanish is spoken freely, and unabashed pride in one’s culture that’s been long overlooked. As said in the film, “we are powerful” and it’s about time that we see ourselves up on the big screen where we can freely showcase our talent, voice, and stories.

Rating: 10/10

In The Heights is playing in select in theatres and will be released in the United States simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max on June 10.

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