Acknowledging criticism that the film adaptation of his musical “In the Heights” had failed to adequately depict the dark-skinned Afro-Latino population of Washington Heights, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood where it is set, Lin-Manuel Miranda has apologized for falling short in “trying to paint a mosaic of this community.”
The movie, adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway musical about a bodega owner with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, was released in theaters and on HBO Max last week, earning positive reviews and high-profile celebrations.
But the film also drew criticism online for the filmmakers’ choice to cast light-skinned Latino actors in leading roles, despite a prevalence of dark-skinned Latinos in the neighborhood where the movie was filmed.
Miranda, who was on the movie’s creative team, said in his statement that he was listening to the feedback online, including the expressions of hurt and frustration over colorism and “feeling still unseen” in the movie.
“I started writing ‘In the Heights’ because I didn’t feel seen,” Miranda wrote in a statement posted to Twitter on Monday evening. “And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen.”
“I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation,” he went on, “the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.”
“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback,” he said in the statement.
The movie, a decade-long project that had a reported $55 million budget, starred Anthony Ramos as the bodega owner, Melissa Barrera as an aspiring fashion designer and Leslie Grace as Nina, a struggling Stanford student.
In a recent interview, the film’s writer, Quiara Alegría Hudes, spoke about the decision to make Nina an Afro-Latina character in the film version. “I wanted to consciously make Nina Afro-Latina in this version of ‘In the Heights.’ Since we opened the show on Broadway, this national conversation has happened around microaggressions and really interesting stuff that I feel like would be applicable to Nina’s situation.”
Corey Hawkins, who plays Nina’s love interest and an employee of her father’s cab service, is Black but not Latino (some also criticized the filmmakers for removing a plot point, which had existed in the musical, in which Hawkins’s character says Nina’s father doesn’t think he’s good enough for her).
Felice León, a video producer with the Root, addressed the issue in a recent interview with the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, and some of the film’s lead actors, saying, “As a Black woman of Cuban descent, specifically from New York City, it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the fact that most of your principal actors were light-skinned or white-passing Latinx people.”
León acknowledged that there were a number of Black background dancers and Black women in the scenes located in the hair salon, a sort of social hub for the women of the neighborhood, but that Black performers in leading roles were lacking.
“We want to see Afro-Panamanians, Black Cubans, Black Dominicans,” she said. “That’s what we want to see, and that’s what we were yearning for.”
Chu said that it was a subject that the filmmakers had discussed but that “in the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people who were best for those roles.”
In the interview, Grace, who is Afro-Latina, responded, “I do hope to see my brothers and sisters that are darker than me lead these movies.”
The discussion over “In the Heights” is unfolding at a moment when the underrepresentation of Latinos in Hollywood has drawn increased scrutiny, prompting calls for change.
A Writers Guild of America West study issued last year found that while Latinos accounted for 18.3 percent of the population, but only 4.7 percent of feature film writers and 8.7 percent of television writers. The University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative described that lack of Latinos both behind and in front of the camera as “an erasure” in a 2019 study.
Some jumped to Miranda’s defense, pointing out that he has long worked to feature diverse casts on Broadway and in Hollywood, and that “In the Heights” celebrates Latino communities in a way that has rarely been seen in film and television.
“I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made,” he wrote, “and be accountable for our shortcomings.”
Michael Paulson contributed reporting.