The cast and the directorial team of In the Heights have found themselves in controversy, yet again, after an interview. The Root’s Felice León interviewed the film’s director Jon M. Chu and several of the cast members; The outcome was not positive at all.
While León, who is Afro-Latino attempts to give the stars and director a chance to have an open and honest conversation about the blatant Anti-blackness, they only downplayed valid critiques. León asked Chu what are his thoughts on the lack of Black Latinx people represented in the film. Chu’s response was that this was a topic that was discussed and that he still needed to be “educated on”; However, he states that in the end, he tried to get the people who were best for those roles.
Chu’s commentary on this issue was more than remissive. Chu shifts the conversation from the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx representation to praising the cast without acknowledging how racial biases could have led to certain castmates being chosen for their particular roles. This is not to say that the cast isn’t talented; However, why is it that the only talent that is represented in this film are Light-skinned Latinos? This is the retort whenever the conversation of colorism enters the room; that there is a lack of Afro-Latinx talent in the acting pool.
Not only did Chu offer some questionable responses his cast did as well. Melissa Barrera followed Chu by saying, “In the audition process…..there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there, a lot of darker-skinned people, but I think that they were looking for just the right people for the roles, the person that embodied the characters.”
This claim is simply not true. If anything, these last few years have increased the visibility of Afro-Latinx actors on the little and big screen. Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us and Usnavi in his High School’s Production of ‘In the Heights’), Tristan Wilds (90210), Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy), Dascha Polanco (Orange Is the New Black), Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok), and so many more Afro-Latinx actors who are in the mainstream media. The idea that there are no Afro-Latinx actors who have showcased their acting abilities adequately enough to appear in a movie with a $55 million dollar budget is rightfully…confusing.
This conversation is tiring enough but the most confusing question is. Why does Hollywood refuse to see diversity and inclusion as a success strategy rather than an opponent? The film opened to a disappointing $11 Million box office debut this weekend. While COVID is definitely a factor in the box office numbers, the controversy surrounding this film from its first trailer to the latest interview only solidified people’s uninterest in seeing the film.
In knowing this, it is clear that the casting choices did not help the movie as much as they thought it would. The inclusion of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx actors would have only strengthened the hype around the movie but it seems that Hollywood values anti-Blackness over capitalism. This is not to say that capitalism in its own right does not embody anti-black politics because it absolutely does; however, in this specific case, there is no other reason for a significant amount of Afro-Latinx to not be present in a movie based in a city with a high demographic of dark-skinned people. The amount of support that this movie would have received would have tripled had the demographics of the actors would have matched the demographics of the city. This is just another example of how Hollywood would rather sabotage a work of art rather than showcase Blackness.
While the cast is taking the heat from the interview, the creator Lin Manuel Miranda has been mostly silent. Not really acknowledging the conversations about anti-Blackness. Lin Manuel Miranda did offer an interesting perspective in a piece for Buzzfeed stating, “It’s unfair to put any kind of undue burden of representation on In the Heights.” “There are so many millions of stories […] — from the cultural specificities of the Puerto Rican American experience, the Dominican American experience, the Cuban American experience, and we couldn’t get our arms around all of that.”
I agree with Miranda, it is unfair to put the burden of undoing flawed representation on In the Heights. However, silencing the posing of valid conversations that surround Hollywood’s struggle with representing Blackness within Latinidad is definitely not helping. To criticize very valid questions that critique seemingly colorist casting is intentional. To exclude dark-skinned Latinos and Black actors and still have the audacity to call the work representative is intentional. Even the strategic placing of dark-skinned Black characters as dancers and extras in the background is intentional. Anti-Blackness is a force in Hollywood even if Chu or Barrera refuses to admit it. It permeates even the most diverse works of art in ways that question what we all know as reality.
So no, In the Heights would not have solved Hollywood’s anti-Blackness problem; However, it could have been a healthy start.