‘In the Heights’ Captures the Beauty of Washington Heights and the Community Behind It

It seems like only yesterday when national treasure and lyricist genius Lin-Manuel Miranda graced the Richard Rodgers Theatre as Usnavi in the Broadway production of In the Heights. Now, 13 years later, the Tony Award-winning musical is finally premiering on the big screen next month. 

Directed by Jon M. Chu, with a screenplay written by the original writer of the musical’s book Quiara Alegría Hudes, In the Heights tells the story of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a charismatic bodega owner in Washington Heights who saves every penny from his daily grind as he has a sueñito — aka little dream — of getting out of the barrio and living in the Dominican Republic, where his family was from. Right off the bat in the film, we get a glimpse of life in the small Latinx community, especially the people that Usnavi interacts with on the daily — his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV); “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz); the ladies of the beauty shop — Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), and Cuca (Dascha Polanco); taxi company owner Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) whose daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) is studying at Stanford; Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins); Usnavi’s crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who wants to move to Manhattan; and, Piraguero the Piragua Guy (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Although it is a huge cast, each of them gets their own time to shine, especially Miranda’s Piragua Guy, which is always a delight to see Miranda do anything. 

In the Heights is a spectacle to watch with its big-scale musical numbers filled with colors and life. Chu, who directed the colorful world of Crazy Rich Asians, is really great at capturing the beauty of the location the film is based on. In this case, Chu has captured what seems to be a “love letter” to Washington Heights and the Latinx community behind it. What many will see as a small bodega on the corner is transformed into a beautiful store filled with stories along the wall filled with so much life that it becomes a character in the movie itself. Although Chu is not Latinx, it’s obvious that he understood how important it was to showcase the rich textures and the spirit of the community. Chu’s experience in dance-based films with the LXD series and the Step It Up films comes through for the song and dance numbers. The choreography and utilization of the location is outrageously stunning and would persuade any non-dancer to just tap their foot along to the music.

As for the narrative — which has changed a lot from the original stage production, the story follows current events like Nina’s reasons for dropping out of college; Sonny’s storyline regarding DACA; and the reality of gentrification slowly creeping up in the boroughs of New York. Several songs have been changed as well as the order they arrive, which then changes some of the scenes. These changes do affect some of the character development — which is heartbreaking for some who obsessively watched it on Broadway — such as the removal of Kevin’s beloved wife Camila, a strong-willed and fierce Puerto Rican mother; and the changes to Benny and Nina’s love story. Despite that, the movie is still entertaining, and for those who have never seen the Broadway musical may not even notice it. 

Ramos is perfect as Usnavi who brings another layer of charm to the role, but also some sexiness as well. It helps that Ramos is experienced on both the screen and stage because his transitions between song and dialogue are smooth and both filled with so much emotion. It never feels choppy with him. But, his performance is so good, that sometimes he outshines his costars, which does have an impact on Usnavi’s romance with Vanessa, which felt very lacking in chemistry.

Another standout performer was Grace whose voice is one to be reckoned with. She radiates in every scene she’s in, even in moments when she’s at her lowest. It’s hard to ignore that this person is a star. It’s unfortunate that Nina and Benny’s love story is shortchanged in the film version because it would have been lovely to hear more of Grace’s voice, as well as see more of Nina and Benny because of the sweet chemistry between the two actors.

Diaz as Sonny is impressive, especially since he’s exactly who I would have pictured in the fan-casting of this film. Equally charming to Ramos’ Usnavi, Diaz plays with such heart that you become invested in the character, which is unfortunate when you don’t know what happens to him at the end of the film. Sonny may have been my favorite character and to not know where he stands, especially when the film fast-forwards to the future.

Of course, one cannot talk about an amazing performance without mentioning Merediz, who reprised her Tony-nominated Broadway role. Obviously, Merediz knew the assignment, and she killed it with her performance of “Paciencia Y Fe.” There was no doubt who should play Claudia because Merediz embodied everyone’s abuela who sincerely cares and loves her community.

It should be noted how important this film is for the Latinx audiences. According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s Film report, Latinx were the only racial and ethnic group that were underrepresented in film with only 5% of the speaking roles in the Top 100 films of 2019, which is a problem since the Latinx community consists of 18% of the US population.

In the Heights is a predominantly Latinx cast that celebrates the subtle nuances of what it means to be part of that population. The film may not be representative of all Latinx people, as no film should have that responsibility, but it will provide some comfort for those longing for themselves to be seen. The film is filled with so much love and it shows through the characters, the mention of iconic Latinx performers, and the set design of colorful murals of Latinx icons.

In the Heights is not perfect, there are some narrative changes that didn’t really work together, but it still didn’t take away from the big, splashy celebration of that small community in Washington Heights.