In the Heights, the film adaptation of a beloved Broadway musical about gentrification and race in New York, takes on new meaning in a post-pandemic world
There was a lot of excitement around the screen adaptation of Quiara Alegira Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show In the Heights. The musical about the gentrification of Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican and Latino neighbourhood in ‘Nueva York’, had already won its share of accolades including multiple Tony Awards and Grammys. It had also first put Miranda on the map, before he went on to create the record-smashing musical Hamilton.
A celebration of togetherness, and a city and a community’s undying spirit, the much-anticipated film was slated to be the perfect moviegoing experience in 2020.
But then the pandemic hit.
Cinemas shuttered. And New York became one of the world’s worst-affected cities. Black and Latino people were amongst the groups most impacted by the virus. “There are clear inequalities, clear disparities in how this disease is affecting the people of our city,” New York City’s mayor Bill de Balsio said last year.
According to a New York Times April 2020 article, if New York was the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the US, “minorities and people in the city’s poorest [neighbourhoods]” resided at the core.
In the Heights has been released in a world where many businesses have gone under because of the pandemic. Salons and barbershops, such as Daniela’s, have been particularly hit hard.
Washington Heights was one of the more vulnerable neighbourhoods. As Robert W Snyder, author of the book Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City, observes in an article on The Conversation, because rents in the Heights and Inwood are “astronomical”, families in these areas often “double up to make the costs more bearable.”
Describing overcrowding in the area as a “ticking time bomb” during the pandemic, Snyder writes about how the “resilience” that In the Heights celebrates is exactly what helped Washington Heights during the pandemic. He details how the community, which has fought the drug trade and crime, came together, once again, in the face of Covid-19.
Of course, In the Heights is not a film about Covid-19 or the fight against it. But the themes it talks about have taken on new meaning. The film explores how gentrification has impacted the lives of the multicultural residents of the Heights — many of whom left their countries of birth to start over in a new home. It is precisely this gentrification that has resulted in rising rents in the neighbourhood, and overcrowding in the face of these rents.
Gentrification has been a concern in the city for the past few decades now. In the Heights looks at how this disrupts the lives of the city’s less privileged residents, many of whom are immigrants. In one song, Blackout — sung during a blackout in parts of the city — one of the oft-repeated lines is, “We are powerless, we are powerless.” The line references the fact that the Heights literally have no power (electricity), and also that the neighbourhood’s residents are powerless against a rapidly-changing city.
“We are not powerless,” says Daniela (Daphne Ruben-Vega), a character who has been forced to move her salon out of the Heights due to rising rents, before another song Carnaval del Barrio. “We are powerful!”
It is fitting that *In the Heights, a celebration of community, is one of the first films to be screened at cinemas as communal film-watching becomes an option again in some parts of the world.*
A MESSAGE OF HOPE
In the Heights has been released in a world where many businesses have gone under because of the pandemic. Salons and barbershops, such as Daniela’s, have been particularly hit hard. The city has changed. People have lost their loved ones. And while individuals with white-collar jobs have stayed relatively safe working from home, not everyone had that option.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the film’s protagonist, runs a bodega (corner store). He would’ve presumably continued to stay open during the pandemic, providing an ‘essential service’ to the community, while struggling to stay safe and in business.
When the film finally released online (on HBO Max) and in theatres earlier this month, its message — of soldiering on in the face of adversity — resonated in a big way. It is also fitting that In the Heights, a celebration of community, is one of the first films to be screened at cinemas as communal film-watching becomes an option again in some parts of the world.
After a long battle with Covid-19, New York is reopening. This musical, about how the city cannot be defeated, is perhaps exactly what we need to watch right now.
Director John M Chu (who also directed the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians) has a grand vision for the musical numbers. He shoots many songs from a distance to show the bigness of it all. This high-budget, high-production approach might’ve felt a bit over the top had the film come out last year. But after months of lockdowns, watching hundreds of New Yorkers take to the streets feels good.
QUESTIONS OF RACE
Since In the Heights has come out, it has received rave reviews. But the film has also attracted backlash for its lack of Afro-Latino performers in lead roles, and for most of the lead actors being light-skinned. Many feel disappointed and say that the film about Washington Heights excludes members of a community that makes up a significant portion of the neighbourhood.
Miranda has apologised and responded to the criticism. “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short,” he tweeted, adding that he started writing In the Heights because he did not feel seen.
Race has always been at the centre of the musical’s subject matter. During one song, the residents of the Heights sing about what they’d do if they won 96,000 dollars in a lottery. Everyone daydreams about what the money could mean for them, until Sonny (George Diaz IV), a teenager, drops the mic. “Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant,” he raps. “I’ll cash my ticket and picket, invest in protest; Never lose focus till the city takes notice.” The scene feels all the more powerful as the film comes out after global Black Lives Matter protests last year.
In the Heights is not a perfect film. But it is an important one nonetheless. Its ability to morph into something timely, even in these unprecedented times, is a testament to the importance of its message.
Published in Dawn, ICON, June 27th, 2021