Many musicals seem shy about the fact they’re, you know, musicals. They’re tentative about people breaking into song, and even then the songs are intentional set-pieces compartmentalized from dialogue scenes. They don’t seem to believe that people would come to a musical to witness music, and they certainly don’t want to risk any plot happening during the songs. They want to shift you gently – even slyly – into the fact that the film you’re about to watch contains singing. “In the Heights” is the complete opposite.
Don’t get me wrong; there is dialogue if that’s what you want. You can see it out the window, way out in the distance, as you speed by from one song to the next. Dialogue regularly drifts into song as if characters are reminding each other: do you even remember what movie you’re in? There are sequences within “In the Heights” that shift between three songs and set-pieces that actively tell the story rather than put it on hold.
We follow Usnavi, a young man who runs a corner bodega in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York. He has dreams of moving to the Dominican Republic and running a bar there, but he has ties that anchor him in New York. He cares for his young cousin Sonny, he can’t leave without him or his Abuela Claudia, and he’s in love with Vanessa – a friend he hasn’t really asked out. A lot of this is what you’d expect in a musical, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
First off, is it a good movie? “In the Heights” is the best live-action musical since “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”. It isn’t just a spectacle, it isn’t just flash and song and dance. It’s all the heart that musicals have completely forgotten since well before I was born. It doesn’t enter screen scared that you might not appreciate a musical. It enters set on the idea that for these two-and-a-half hours, musicality is how the world works and speaks and feels.
And then it does so much more than that. Being Latino in the United States, I grew up with this seed of an idea in my head that I didn’t measure up. Everything in the entertainment media around me told me that if I worked hard and did everything right, at best I might one day be considered equal to white: if I deferred enough, if I kept quiet enough, if I passed well enough. The love and reassurance I had from my family only shields you so far in a culture set on wearing it away. My accomplishments were only ever catching up to where so many others started without accomplishing anything. I could get straight A’s, do taekwondo, band, 4-H, volunteer, be the tallest kid in class, be the one everyone wanted to be paired with on a project, the one everyone came to for answers – but the minute I stepped out of that class, that gym, that lab, I was one of the handful of Latine kids, who had to be tested, harassed, distrusted, confronted at every turn.
I heard at home I could be anything. I heard everywhere else that if I did everything right, maybe I could know the people who got to be anything, maybe I could hide the half of me that couldn’t be anything. Maybe I could perform and emulate the part of someone who got to be anything. I pushed the Mexican half of myself down throughout my childhood.
Author and activist bell hooks once wrote that “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem”.
Other forms of bigotry can work in similar ways. White supremacy, even in its polite suburban fashion, can ask a young Latino to carve away half of himself, to suppress a part of himself to act the part, to become white enough, in fear of the harassment, ostracizing, confrontation, and violence he faces.
As I became an adult, uncovering that half of myself I’d so buried, so disappeared, was like learning how to crawl, to walk, to run all over again. I’d denied half of myself real development, pride, trust, acknowledgment. That I made it far enough to do that is a testament to the support of my family and what community I did have, to lucking out and having one teacher who knew a school that allowed me to escape my town.
When I look at the impostor syndrome I struggle with, this is its root. It’s sunk into the foundations. I might know better now, I might’ve developed that other, buried half of myself and learned to love it and learn from it, but the training we get as kids is something we never fully leave behind. That sense that I am incapable of being good enough plagues nearly every task, effort, piece of writing. I have constant anxiety that I will lose the approval of anyone and everyone in my life. Why? Because I spent the first two decades of my life believing that about half of who I was, believing it so completely that I tried to erase it in myself. Do that to yourself through your entire childhood, believe that nothing you do will ever be good enough to get to the starting point, and even the perfect – the best job you can ever do – there’s a part of you that will always be convinced it only gets you to where everyone else starts before they even try.
At its heart, “In the Heights” is about a generation of Latines struggling with forms of impostor syndrome – not this form exactly, but one in which their humanity, their community, their legitimacy, their history is confronted with erasure and dismissal.
I think there’s a favorite character for everybody, but for me it was Nina, who comes home after having gone to Stanford, a prodigal daughter who bears the weight of everyone’s expectations. That burden is too much for her in a place that treats her as out of place; she’s dropped out.
Are there some issues with “In the Heights”? Sure. The focus on music and dance over dialogue means that the story can feel a bit loose, zooming out to a broad perspective and then focusing in on a much more personal one at the drop of a hat. The story is told in a way that can often mirror sensation. A scene doesn’t stop to have a musical number, it just progresses into one naturally. When this happens, the story can shift from precise dialogue to the feeling of how a conversation plays out. It requires some inference on the part of the audience. It’s as if we get the feelings and sensations a dialogue would create, without knowing exactly what the dialogue is.
In my book, that’s awesome. Others may not like that as much, or may prefer musicals with more compartmentalized set-pieces. Compartmentalization has been the go-to for the few big, modern musicals we get, so folks may not be as used to seeing this more expressionist approach. If you’re a fan of older musicals, particularly Gene Kelly ones that could shift a conversation into gigantic set-pieces or aching ballads where people dance into regionalist art and sing the feelings they dare not speak, that describes this approach better.
One major issue about representation has been brought up. Some Afro-Dominican critics and residents have said that the Washington Heights neighborhood isn’t represented in an accurate way. Pretty much everyone on-screen is Latine, but there are very few Afro-Latines. The approach may’ve been to represent a larger group of Latine communities – there’s one song that features multiple shout-outs to the ancestries that make up the community. At the same time, if that’s the goal, then it should be realized whose representation may have been sacrificed in reaching it.
I love “In the Heights”. It was a damn blurry movie cause I was crying the entire time. I hope it’s at the top of every awards list for pretty much any category you can name. But loving something this much does not mean it is magically free of problems. If Afro-Latine people were underrepresented in a story about a largely Afro-Latine community, that is a problem. And let’s be real – Afro-Latine people are regularly underrepresented in conversations about Latine communities and who composes them.
My representation is not worth the sacrifice of anyone else’s. I can still love this movie and argue for it, while also recognizing that there is a place it could have done better and that this is worth discussing and learning about. If I love this movie and what it does for representation, what it does for arguing about where home is and the value we do have, then it requires me to say it also could have done better representing this group of people. That doesn’t change the impact of this movie. It asks what’s next, what do we do better the next time, and how do we listen this time in order to achieve that, because I’ll be damned if a salve to my impostor syndrome is simply to shift it to someone else.
“In the Heights” is lovely and beautiful and brilliant. At the same time, this kind of representation is our starting point, and we do not treat that starting point as exclusive or dismissive of someone else. We know what that feels like, and we do not pass that on. It’s a brilliant, heartfelt movie that addresses a piece of me better than any other I’ve ever seen. It also could have done better in this one place. Both are true, and part of the same conversation.
“In the Heights” is available on HBO Max and in theaters.
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