Every once in a while there is a movie that reaches through the screen, hugs you, and lets you know you’re seen. For me, it had been a long while since that happened, then, I saw In the Heights. If you’re unfamiliar, In the Heights is the film adaptation of the musical of the same name by the now iconic Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. While I’ve never gotten the chance to see the production, I have listened to the songs over and over again, enough to know how important the subject and the story are. Now, with director Jon M. Chu behind the camera, and Alegría Hudes’s script adaptation, and a cast packed to the brim with amazing Latinx talent, In the Heights is a way for all those who missed the production to finally see it.
Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Jimmy Smits, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Olga Merediz, Marc Anthony, and Gregory Diaz IV, In the Heights is told through the eyes of a bodega owner, Usnavi de la Vega (Ramos). It’s a love letter to the very real Washington Heights, the community, and the stories that come from within it. While Usnavi is the tentpole of the film, narrating its events to a group of children he calls sueñitos, the film focuses on the lives of those around him as well. Nina (Grace) has finally made it out of the barrio and into Stanford, but she’s struggling to feel like she belongs in a world that perpetually tells her that she doesn’t. Vanessa is doing everything she can to leave Washington Heights, pushing to live her own dream while thinking the place she calls home is limiting it. Sonny (Diaz) is planning his future after high school but not sure what that looks like given his family. Usnavi is trying to save every penny to go back “home,” and by that, he means the Dominican Republic. And overseeing it all is Abuela Claudia, the woman who watches over the neighborhood, its guardian, its, well, Abuela.
And while In the Heights is about individuals, it’s truly about the collective stories that come together in one place. So much so that the place, Washington Heights, becomes a character in and of itself. It’s a place people want to leave. It’s a place people call home. It’s a place being gentrified by investors that is slowly losing itself. It’s a place that’s worthy of being preserved and fought for. While I’m not from Washington Heights or even New York, I am from a barrio. I am from a part of town that I looked at as holding me back. That my family tried to “escape” from, but now we desperately miss for having it shape us into who we are. And in a way that’s the message of the film. Places are places, but homes are people. Communities are the way we come together and shape our surroundings through adversity and in our joy.
There is a lot I want to say about In the Heights. I can talk about how it’s the most stunning example of Latinx joy I have ever seen on screen. I can talk about how it takes the very real struggle and elegantly presents them to an audience that may not know what it’s like. I can talk about how I was Nina, in a place where everyone thought I didn’t belong, and how that fueled my imposter syndrome. I can talk about how the film’s most touching number isn’t one that comes from sadness, but instead, one calling for Latinx folks to raise our flags, to own our identities, and feel joy and strength with it. I can write about all of those things and somehow I would still not be able to capture the power and the beauty of In the Heights.
Each and every actor in the film throws their entire being into their roles. Every emotional sequence and there are many, is handled with the weight it deserves. The songs are vibrant and robust. And the choreography is stunning, especially when the entire community is involved. As a musical, it’s the best one brought to film.
But truthfully the magic of In the Heights comes from a line said by Abuela Claudia that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since the first teaser trailer: “We had to assert our dignity in small ways – little details that tell the world that we are not invisible.” Growing up, that was what I was taught, even if it wasn’t those words. It’s the memories we keep, the small flag we put in our car, the refusal to drink anything but a Jarritos, the way we pronounce street names, the way we love our brown skin when the world tells us we shouldn’t. Every small thing we do that cherishes and celebrates who are acts of self-determination and defiance. Those little details, in truth, speak loudly.
In the Heights is about those small ways, the little details, of Latinidad that make us who we are. It’s the bodega. It’s the dad who does everything he can without complaint to push forward his daughter’s future. It’s about the way the characters pronounce words the way I do. It’s the Piragua Guy. It’s the refusal to pay too much for dry cleaning. In the Heights isn’t just about the stunning soundtrack or the way the songs stick in your head. It’s about the way you feel. It’s about being seen and heard and not in the loud moments, but in the silent ones. It’s a testament to a community and a people that keep pushing forward. It’s a story about us and for us.
In the end, In the Heights captures the joy that we so rarely see our communities get to experience on screen. It tells a story through music and emotion. It’s a door opening for people who aren’t a part of these communities to see our vibrancy, our heart, and our determination. In the Heights is perfection.
In the Heights is playing nationwide in theaters and will be available on HBO Max in the United States on June 11, 2021.
In the Heights
In the end In the Heights captures the joy that we so rarely see our community get to experience on screen. It tells a story through music and emotion. It’s a door opening for people who aren’t a part of these communities to see our vibrancy, our heart, and our determination. In the Heights is perfect.