The film, which was initially a book penned by Quiara Alegría Hudes, debuted as a Broadway musical in 2008. But the 2021 adaptation has been panned for its painful lack of representation of the New York Latinx community.
There are no dark-skinned leads… and the majority of dark-skinned actors in the movie are backup dancers.
The results were cringeworthy.
“In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get people who were best for those roles,” said director Jon M. Chu. “But I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin. I think that’s a really good conversation to have, something that we should all be talking about.”
Chu then thought it would be a good idea to point out that the background dancers were diverse.
“Those are roles that, historically, we’ve been able to fill. We’ve been able to be the dancers, we’ve been able to be in the hair salons…but, like, a lead? That’s the breakthrough,” León informed him, which is a fact. “We want to see Black people In the Heights. We wanna see Afro-Panamanians, Black Cubans, Black Dominicans. That’s what we want to see. That’s what we were yearning for and hoping for.”
To which Chu responds… “I hope that encourages more people to tell more stories, and get out there and do it right then.”
And the leading actors did not fare much better.
Mexican actress Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa. She says that although many darker-skinned actors auditioned, they just weren’t right for the roles.
“In the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there. A lot of darker-skinned people. And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent…I think we are all very much like our characters, so much so that a lot of times it didn’t even feel like we were acting,” she said.
Barrera added that “the cast ended up being us, and Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like.”
It’s incredible that we are still having conversations about the lack of diversity in leading roles in 2021. What’s even more surprising is the vague, cookie-cutter excuses and explanations that poor casting decisions are great for “opening a dialogue,” or getting the conversation started.
Dominican-American actress Leslie Grace plays Nina in the musical. She says she was oblivious to the fact that the cast was all light-skinned. She says she hoped the flick would hope to crack Hollywood’s “glass ceiling.”
“I didn’t realize until making this movie that I didn’t really get to see myself or people that looked like my siblings, that are darker than me, onscreen,” she told Felice. “And I didn’t realize how much that affected the limitations that I put on myself—being someone who wanted to be an artist, an actress and even be in the Latin music industry being Afro-Latina.”
“I feel so blessed that we get to express the diversity that is within the Latinx community in a way that we haven’t been able to see onscreen,” she added. “I hope that this is cracking that glass ceiling. Because I do hope to see my brothers and sisters that are darker than me lead these movies.”