Last week, The Root’s Felice León penned an essay about In The Heights’ lack of inclusion of dark-skinned Afro-Latinos. The only dark-skinned main character included in the film is Benny (played by Corey Hawkins). And in a surprising move, the Broadway show’s original storyline that included Nina’s dad Kevin disapproving of her relationship with Benny because he’s Black was scrapped from the movie. Instead, Nina’s character was changed to be biracial; she is played by Afro-Latina Leslie Grace. The character Vanessa was originally played by Karen Olivo on Broadway, who is of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Native American, and Chinese descent. But in the film, Vanessa is played by white-passing Mexican actor Melissa Barrera. Without the poignant part of the story that tackles anti-Black racism within Latinx communities, many Latinos felt that the movie failed at expanding the conversation about race. Many also believed it was a missed opportunity to spotlight more dark-skinned Afro-Latinos who could properly represent the diversity of Latinos who live in Washington Heights.
After León’s essay went viral—in which she noted that The Root struggled to get any interviews with the cast and director Jon M. Chu—she was able to speak to them on camera. In the video, Chu says, “In the end, you know, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people who were best for those roles. And we saw a lot of people, people like Daphne [Rubin-Vega] or Dascha [Polanco], but I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin.” Barrera also echoes the director’s sentiments, saying that though many Afro-Latinos auditioned for the main roles, the casting was done according to who was a proper fit for the characters. Those comments weren’t received well on social media, so Lin-Manuel Miranda, who served as producer for the film but was not part of The Root’s video, issued an apology of his own on Monday, June 14, that he tweeted.
“I started writing In The Heights because I didn’t feel seen. And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us—ALL of us—to feel seen. 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 leading roles. I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback. I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy. In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short.
I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening. I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings. Thanks for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”
Chu didn’t issue a new statement of his own, but retweeted Miranda’s apology.