In the Heights Review (SPOILERS): A Lovely Consideration of Immigrant Identity

Finally getting around to writing the “spoiler” review! Hopefully some of you have seen it by now? Because I love talking movies with y’all!

This is an ensemble movie, in the Broadway musical style. Many characters, and each of them get their big solo moment to express themselves. The “plot” of the film exists to put strain on the characters and help them reach that solo moment. The “happy ending” is simply a resolution of the internal conflicts, nothing actually “changes”.

In the Heights (2021) - IMDb

In a single corner of the Washington Heights neighborhood, Usnavi the owner of the convenience story, Nina the daughter of the car service owner, Benny the employee of the car service, and Vanessa the employee of the nail salon all interact. There is also Nina’s father, and Usnavi’s adopted Grandmother and young cousin. Over the course of a hot summer, Usnavi considers going back to the Dominican Republic, Vanessa struggles with her dreams of being a fashion designer and her love story with Usnavi, Nina struggles with her identity as a first generation college student from an immigrant community, Benny and Nina fall in love, the Grandmother dies, and the young cousin is revealed to be undocumented. There’s also a winning lottery ticket, a power outage, and the threat of gentrification. But really, the only things that “happen” are internal.

Usnavi came to America as a child. He remembers the Dominican Republic from his childhood, and he remembers it as a beautiful place. His parents died after his arrival in America, leaving him the convenience store. He is living their American dream. But would they want him to stay in America working in the same place at the same store, or go back to the Dominican Republic? And what does he want? What is his “real” life? He reaches the point of buying a ticket to the Dominican Republic and considering going, but ultimately he remains in New York. This is his home. Not because of his heritage or his memories, but because of the people. He loves Vanessa, he loves his cousin, and he remembers his grandmother here even after she is gone. He will stay for that.

Nina’s struggle is a fascinating one. She is introduced as the “girl who made it”. She got a scholarship to Stanford and now is home for the first time. But she doesn’t want to go back. The film takes its time making clear why she doesn’t want to go back. At first it appears she might have “failed”, she is ashamed to admit she flunked out. But no, she got straight As, she is fine there. And then it seems like it is just the money, she doesn’t want her father to sell his business for her tuition. But that’s not quite it either. And then finally she admits what is at the heart of it. The school is racist, her roommate accused her of stealing, at a banquet she was assumed to be a waitress. It’s just too hard, too alien, she wants to be home. Her resolution is my favorite. She still hates the school, she still identifies with her home. But she accepts a few years of exile so that she can come back better trained to help her community. There’s no simple lesson that college is awesome, or home is the best, it is an acceptance of the reality that sometimes you need to be unhappy for a few years.

Vanessa is ready to leave. While Usnavi is ready to go back to the Dominican Republic, she is ready to leave her heritage behind her, transform herself into fully “American”, to move to a majority White neighborhood. But when she gets that chance, she finds she doesn’t want it. Her creativity, her identity, her joy is all gone. At the last minute, she wants Usnavi and her home. And she makes the big gesture to convince him to stay, to convince him that he should meet her in the middle and stay in their little bit of home within America.

And then there’s Benny. In the original play, which I looked up, he has a much more complex journey. In the play, he expected to take over Nina’s father’s business someday and resents being overlooked. He also struggles because he is Black American, not an immigrant, and the immigrant community looks down on him. He is beloved and mentored, but is not good enough to be with Nina so far as her father is concerned. All of those levels are removed in his film character. He comes from a troubled background, has been adopted by Nina’s father and the larger community, and he is in love with Nina and trying to figure out how to be with her while she goes to school far away. His journey is more just to provide part of Nina’s homesickness, and a confident contrast to Usnavy’s identity crisis. But thank goodness, the actor with the most star quality in the whole film plays the role! Corey Hawkins is amazing and I can’t take my eyes off him, so I cared about his character even if the script didn’t give him much. And I was happy when he and Nina got together and seemed committed to something long distance.

What all of these characters have in common is that they are Dreamers. That is, people brought to America as children. Their parents decided for them what their lives would be, even more than parents usually do for children, and now they have to take a step and decide what THEY want their lives to be. Do you run back to the homeland? Do you ran forward to assimilation? Do you just keep working day by day and not think of more than that? The end conclusion of the film is, your home is where you are. Your people are the people around you. Don’t think of this as a transition place, a transition neighborhood. Embrace it.

Kal Ho Naa Ho | Netflix
This is something that Diaspora set Indian films don’t necessarily want to deal with. All South Asian immigrants are business owning professionals who live in nice houses and speak fluent English. There are no ethnic enclaves, no struggle, no need to support each other.

At the end of the film, we flashforward to see that Usnavi is still running the convenience store on the corner, now married to Vanessa and with a daughter they are raising in the neighborhood. We don’t see what happened to any of the other characters. But we don’t have to. The point is that the store is still there. So long as there is this central place for the immigrant community, they will be okay. The place and the people are all tied together.

I saw this movie with my parents, and my Dad complained a little about the hanging threads. But to me, I saw the open ending as a choice. A closed ending is the easy answer. Saying “and then we solved all our problems and lived happily ever after” isn’t real. The real answer is, “and then I decided to keep the store open and see what happens day by day” and “I decided to go back to college and see what I could make of myself” and “I lost my job because my boss sold the business but I will keep working” and “I decided to let someone in and take a chance on love and see where it takes me”. Even, “I went to a lawyer to ask for help to get my undocumented cousin a green card, and we don’t know what will happen.”

This is a story about a particular community in New York City. It’s a story about the immigrant experience, I can relate it to my family and the moment we moved from the ethnic enclave generations back into the homogenous world. But it’s also a story of change. Change is a constant, change is something everyone has. The idea of a dream you can achieve and then be done with life, that is the falsehood. None of the people in this film achieve their dream. They just keep going, keep living, keep doing the best they can day by day by day, and that’s all anyone can do.

16 thoughts on “In the Heights Review (SPOILERS): A Lovely Consideration of Immigrant Identity

    • Thank you for asking! I was hoping someone would bring it up so I could throw in my 2 cents.

      One of the things I appreciated about the film is that it dealt with the varied history of immigration by including the Grandmother character. She came from Cuba as a small child in the 1940s. For her character to be darker skinned would change what her experience was like as a child in America, and the meaning of her Cuban identity as someone seemingly from a higher class who jumped class downwards when they moved. So she has to be paler skinned.

      The heroine “Vanessa” can “pass”. No one says it directly, but there is an undertone of that. She can change her voice and behavior and dress and make it in the white area of Manhatten. Casting a pale skinned woman to play the role highlights the way she has the privilege to move back and forth.

      The other heroine, Nina, has darker skin and kinky hair. When she arrives from college her hair is relaxed and straightened. When she goes to the local salon for the first time, they wash it and it comes out in tight kinky curls, which is how it stays for the rest of the movie. A subtle nod to the way she felt the need to fit in while at college and the way she can be herself at home. Her mother is dead and we never see a photo of her, but I think we were meant to understand that her mother was Afro-Carribean.

      Our hero Usnavi, yes, could be darker skinned. There is no character reason he could not have been played by a darker skinned actor. But I will let it pass because it is the most difficult part in the film and the person who was cast has a long history with Lin-Manuel Miranda and could successfully do the role. It’s the part where you would want someone you could trust to take it and the small number of people he considered, a person who was lighter tone happened to be the one picked.

      The Benny character is NOT Afro-Carribean. At least, he really didn’t seem that way to me, I can’t remember him speaking Spanish ever, he seemed to have no family around him, his name is Benny. I read him as Black American, descendant of slaves, cut off from his heritage. Throwing him into the mix was really interesting to me, he was a close friend and part of the neighborhood, but kind of an outsider/insider. He didn’t have the family stories, the songs, all the other things that the immigrant community shared.

      Where I could see more darker skinned casting is in the smaller roles. The ones who have less backstory that would define who they are. Chorus members would be a big thing, if you consciously went out and looked for darker skinned dancers to create a world in which dark skin was the norm, and the lighter skinned older generation and lighter skinned Vanessa-who-can-pass stood out.

      In terms of cutting the Benny racism storyline, I think that was a good cut. The cut a whole character too, Nina’s mother who is dead in the film version. The play came out over 10 years ago. Instead of a storyline about racism with Benny and a story about looting during the blackout, they used that same time to tell a story of an undocumented teenage boy, and Benny and Nina’s father working together to help people during the blackout. Both are valid, but I think a story with harder edges works better in a stage show where it just flows over you, versus in a movie where you can see it again and again all over America. Cutting looters and instead telling a story of helping, cutting racism and instead telling a story of the community helping an undocumented kid, that’s a good choice I think.

      So I guess my big answer is, the movie is telling a specific story of specific characters and for that story, most of them had to be lighter skinned. BUT! If Miranda had thought it through, he could have made an effort to create a world in which dark is the norm by using more darker skinned dancers and darker skinned actors in the smaller roles.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow! It’s rare to find such a reasoned and balanced response to a question on Race! Thanks for this detailed response.

        But as a follow-up – if Miranda had hired more dark-skinned actors for the background and smaller roles…then wouldn’t he face criticism for that as well? “Dark-skinned actors are just decoration…this is tokenism”…. there are so many opinions on this issue…can you overcome all the criticisms?

        Let’s also not forget that Hamilton was criticized for ignoring slavery (despite making people of color front and center)…so I wonder…is Miranda just doing the best he can…small steps forward to promote diversity….or is this all a calculated strategic move…let’s make art about people of color but still make it palatable enough for white audiences as well?

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        • I would have a simpler answer, say that everything cannot be everything. Hamilton brings the stories of people of color back into the American Revolution, from Crispus Attacks to Hamilton himself, AND has race blind casting, AND has a general message of achieving on merit and people from all background coming together and stuff. Slavery is in there, again and again, it’s just not what the play is about.

          And I kind of feel the same way about In the Heights. Despite the title, it is less the story of this particular community in this time and place, and more sort of a summary of Hispanic immigration to America since WWII. He has characters who are Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, all mixed together and all from a variety of generations of immigration and immigrant experiences. There could be more Afro-Carribean characters, but it’s not about the Afro-Carribean experience, it is about the broader Latinx immigrant experience in America.

          From a larger pop culture perspective, I do actually think making things “palatable” is a valid argument. You can make the most perfect extreme everything artwork, but do you want it to just sit there and be perfect? Or do you want it to sneak out to popular culture and change hearts and minds? That’s my opinion though, you can disagree and say “better to have no other option than the difficult perfect option, making it easier is pandering”

          On Tue, Jun 22, 2021 at 1:59 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I also agree with Miranda’s style and with making things palatable….what’s the point of making a movie that no one will watch? Better to reach a larger audience and make small changes… than make a big statement piece that only niche people will see…

            I find the criticism that Miranda is getting very unfair…he made a big step forward…now let him be…the next person can build on this…

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          • Yes. I like your idea of the big step forward, and the next person can build. It truly was a big step forward, an almost all Hispanic cast, Spanish thrown in without translation, on top of being an old style movie musical.

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      • Oh my gosh, I have so many opinions about all of this! But I haven’t seen the movie yet (hopefully tomorrow!) or read any part of this post but the comments so I’ll hold most of them for now. Just wanted to note that the role of Benny was originated on Broadway by Christopher Jackson, who went on to originate the role of George Washington in Hamilton, so that confirms your impression of Benny’s role in the community.

        https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2016/04/christopher-jackson-hamilton-interview

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        • I cannot WAIT for you to see the movie and comment! On all of this! Especially as someone who lived in the real WAshington Heights and can speak to whether the film captured a particular place, or more the overall feel of an immigrant community in an American city.

          On Tue, Jun 22, 2021 at 8:52 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Now that I’ve seen the movie…I can see why people wanted more representation, and also it didn’t feel inauthentic in terms of the neighborhood and the story. I don’t totally agree that the lead characters had to be light skinned. I do agree about Usnavi and Nina, they feel perfect for those roles. (Anthony Ramos is adorable, he has a bashfulness that’s right for Usnavi, who as a character seems like kind of a stand-in for Lin Manuel Miranda. And Ramos played Hamilton’s son, so there’s that. Also, yes, Corey Lawson is fantastic.) But Abuela Claudia could have been afrocubana instead of white, it would have made her character a bit different but the struggle she represents even more real. And Vanessa too, I think, could have been played by an afrolatina actor. There’s nothing inherent to her character or story that requires her to have lighter skin, like Claudia it would have changed the dynamic a bit but potentially in good ways. Though here I have a suspicion that there was maybe a real person this character was based on and that may have influenced the casting.
        https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a33170641/who-is-vanessa-nadal-lin-manuel-miranda-wife/

        Either one of those characters being representative of the darker-skinned Latino community would have made a big difference in how it felt as a depiction of the neighborhood and the caribeños in NY, so in that sense it’s true that they could have done better.

        And…I suspect that the number of people from the community represented who are mad at the movie because it didn’t do this part right is not as big as it seems on Twitter and in the NY Times. There’s a context around this which is, first, that we don’t see so many complex, talented, joyful representations of Caribbean Latinos in the movies, and there are many things to love about this movie and these stories it’s telling. Second, there’s a lot of colorism within the community and, for example, a strain of identifying traditionally with the Spanish/European roots by Dominicans, partly to differentiate themselves from Haiti. It’s probably changed since I haven’t lived there for a long time, but around when the play launched and is set I don’t a lot of people in Washington Heights would have identified as Black or even necessarily afrolatino. I don’t mean to say it’s not a real issue or that colorism is OK if it’s reflecting real world prejudices, just that it’s complicated and there are layers that don’t make it into the mainstream discourse.

        I do kind of wish we could talk about art like this in a way that acknowledges where it has flaws or gaps but without that taking over all discussion of the film and being the only thing people are talking about. I mean, the dance numbers! Come on!

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        • From the perspective of media criticism history, we are in SUCH a phase of “representation” and “micro-aggressions” and stuff as the be all end all way to talk about popular art!!!!! In the 1940s and 50s it was all “subtle propaganda by the fascists in power”, and then it switched to “autuer theory and let’s appreciate film as art” and then all “let’s appreciate film as meta art talking about other film” and now it’s “let’s talk about film as Representation and Social Justice”. All of these options are valid and important of course, but there are phases of popularity in media criticism just like in any other part of life.

          So, yes! This film can be discussed related to representation. But also, THE DANCING! And the way it ties together the history of broadway musicals (Cole Porter mentioned in lyrcs, etc.), with the history of film musicals! That pool dance number that is Esther Williams crossed with the classic First Act Finale from every broadway play? And talking of casting, casting only singer/dancers!!!!! Everyone does their own singing, not as a gimmick, but because they were cast for their ability to sing! Have you looked up the cast? Abuela is the original actress from Broadway, got Tony’s and stuff for the role. But Vanessa comes from Telenovelas, and Nina is a Spanish language pop star. That’s exciting to me! Not just casting people who can sing and dance, but casting them from all kinds of different artistic backgrounds, from Broadway to pop music.

          On Wed, Jun 23, 2021 at 11:51 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yes, I think you’ve hit on a really important point that’s been under discussed, which is what it means for In the Heights and Hamilton that they come from theater. Because on the plus side, that lineage and the conversation they’re having with theater history is a big part of what is creative and delightful about what they’re doing. It’s also arguably way more transgressive and important to get shows like these launched as successful productions on Broadway than it is to have them as films, because the norm on Broadway is whiter and less representative culturally and racially than it is in film. And on the other side, the origin story of Lin Manuel Miranda’s success is that he has been unusually good at adapting his stories to the white gaze, which is literal in the theater world in the sense that you need to sell a load of tickets to mostly white people to have the kind of hits he’s had. I think that’s part of why when the shows reach a much larger film audience they don’t do all the things people want them to do.

            Back on the positive side, theater is a living beast. If you don’t like the casting, guaranteed some director is going to experiment with mixing it up to see what happens, and there will be opportunities to explore all of these questions over the many years people will create their own versions of the story.

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  1. This was so much fun! My husband and I went on a proper date night with no kids and ended up alone in the theater. I wish I could have watched with a bigger audience, but it was kind of fun because we could talk when we felt like it – hey, that’s the girl from Orange Is the New Black! wait, where is that pool and how did we not know about it? is that the park down by the river? check it out, it’s George Washington! And wow, the dance numbers were incredible, so glad I saw those on the big screen. The dance on the side of the building was beautiful, but that pool scene blew me away.

    (It’s the same local movie theater where I go to see Indian movies and I kept wondering how it would go over with the desi audience since it’s that rare American movie where they do right by the songs, but maybe not enough plot, right?)

    Usnavi and Nina felt like the heart of the film, their stories were the most developed. I loved Nina’s story, it’s one we see so rarely, the girl who is carrying her whole neighborhood’s dreams on her shoulders and fears she doesn’t measure up. When her dad says at the end that line about this is the moment when you do better than me, not because you got to college but because you can see a better future, that made me tear up. Speaking of Jimmy Smits, he’s so good and it made me happy to see him here. He’s done some groundbreaking in Hollywood in his time, it felt like casting him in this role honored that history. (He was also fantastic in The Get Down, if you never watched that show and come out if this movie wanting more young strivers from New York with killer songs and dance moves.) And Usnavi’s full circle to staying, when you put it together with Abuela Claudia’s death and Sonny’s fight for a green card and Vanessa is the ending you can’t help rooting for.

    Not going to pretend to pass judgement on how well it represents the neighborhood. I’ll just say that the mix of nationalities is a feature of the neighborhood. It’s predominantly Dominican, but with plenty of Puerto Rican and Cuban mixed in, and more recently Mexicans too. The immigration stories common to the different groups vary a bit – the Puerto Rican and Cuban communities are longer standing and mostly don’t have issues with papers – and the Spanish they speak is a little different, but there is more in common. My husband, who hung out in a bodega like Usnavi’s all the time when we lived there, came out saying they got it right. They definitely knew how to make the most of the location. It’s called the Heights for a reason, those views are real and so are all the stairs. Oh and the salon ladies, loved everything about them. And the bit with Lin Manuel Miranda as the piragüero fighting over sidewalk territory with Christopher Jackson in a cameo as Mister Softee, that was hilarious. And I was shocked by Marc Anthony as Sonny’s dad, he kind of broke my heart. Had no idea he could pull off a scene like that. (That’s the guy also known as JLo’s superstar ex husband.)

    Anyway, it’s late and I’m rambling but this movie made me happy. 🙂

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    • Jimmy Smits was the real ringer in the cast, wasn’t he? I feel like everyone else were singers-who-can-also-act. Which is fine, especially in a musical, the songs should be the majority of the character work. But Jimmy Smits is an Actor who can Act. His scenes were just on a whole other level, and I feel like his character grounded the whole film. The first generation immigrant who is struggling to see what the future holds, where to hold on and where to let go. I am so glad they cut the racism storyline because I think the storyline of the father-daughter conflict was way more interesting. And that scene when he tells her she is taking it forward? It was beautiful, because he didn’t look proud or strong, he looked truly sort of sad and tired the way the lines said he should look. It’s sad to see your children move forward, to see through them what you never had, if that makes sense? Not because he is jealous of her, but just The World.

      Nina’s storyline delighted me especially in the ending. She is struggling because she seems to have only two options, forget home and succeed, or stay home and fail. And those are the two options that everyone from a powerless community tends to be presented with, right? Assimilate and make us proud, stay home and be happy with your lot. But for her to say “No, I can go out in the world and get these tools, and then come back” that was radical. And the strength to acknowledge her time at Stanford will take a heavy toll on her in all ways, but she is still going back?

      Usnavi was so sweet! And I really didn’t want him to leave! I wanted him to see that this was his home, he wasn’t stuck here, he was living. Oh,t hat was stressful! It’s funny, the movie really really has nothing that happens in it. I mean, Usnavi will leave or stay but will be fine either way. Nina will leave or stay and be fine either way. And so on and so forth. And yet I cared SO MUCH!!!!

      The Marc Antony scene was great, with such layers. Part of it for me was that we saw Usnavi in a new light. Usnavi thinks of himself as not doing anything, stuck in place, etc. But then we meet Marc Antony, who seems like a mess, and see Sonny’s home life. Totally not what I expected because Sonny is so smart and happy and solid. But then I understand that Usnavi made Sonny what he is, just as Abeula stepped in and raised him, he is raising Sonny. And not even thinking of it that way, just doing it day by day. Usnavi matters in the neighborhood, he’s not just the guy who runs the corner shop, he is holding things together without even seeing how he is holding things together. You know?

      On Thu, Jun 24, 2021 at 12:42 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

  2. One other thought, on Hamilton: I read a lot of the criticism and I think they’re committing the cardinal sin if criticism which is to criticize it for what it’s not, for some projected idea of what it should be, rather than looking at what the show set out to do and engaging with that. Hamilton came from the surprising moment of Lin Manuel Miranda reading the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton and seeing his father’s story in it. The whole show comes from that. It’s this sense of this is like my story, these dead white dudes we learned about in school are not the boring heroes they taught us about, they were young and scrappy and looking for a fight. They had missing parents and money troubles and fought their way up by grabbing at every opportunity that came within reach, they used education to climb their way up and write themselves into the story. And they died by gun violence, outside the law. Hamilton comes from taking the history we thought we knew and claiming it for the young, scrappy fighters of our times and showing them this story belongs to them too. It’s Obama era, brimming with hope and idealism.

    It does not tell the stories that we don’t learn in school, it does not question the founding myth, it does not center the true downtrodden of the day. It does touch on slavery in a few different ways, like Hamilton needling Jefferson, but it goes very easy on Washington. It revolves around the central hero and doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. But the thing it set out to do, it does very well, and people love it for that. Plus the music is fantastic and the performers were just beyond – pretty sure Leslie Odom Jr. can do anything he dang well sets his mind to.

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    • Yes, I agree. And in terms of slavery, Washington did free his slaves. I mean, it was a journey to get there, but he grew as a person and rejected common wisdom and freed his slaves on his death. So purely in terms of the slave owning founding fathers, to me it is fair for Jefferson to be needled and Washington not. And to tie Washington into the young scrappy group who were anti-slavery.

      On Thu, Jun 24, 2021 at 10:40 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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