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In The Heights

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda

June 2021

Review by Miguel Cullen

‘I got my island. Go get yours’, says Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a Washington Heights nail technician with her heart set on big things Downtown, to her sweetheart, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega bossman who wants to go run a beach bar back in the Dominican Republic (DR). The concept of elsewhere is one that In The Heights puts at its centre: right now we are all, post-lockdowns, harking back to varying extents to an ‘away’ far from our ‘island’. In In The Heights the very flavour of Dominican community spirit is an exercise in co-remembering, rekindling their ‘where they’ve come from’. And yet, Usnavi and Vanessa are still yearning to escape the ghetto. The anguish of those agitating in Cuba, and in Covid-hit South America, where people are stuck in the severest poverty, serves to render these aspirations quaint, though this is not the point of the film. 

In The Heights is a lighthearted American musical, providing a vivid depiction of life in the Latino community in ‘Nueba Yol’. Films such as West Side Story or Carlito’s Way have more criminal-focused angles on the subject; in the frantic build-up towards Usnavi’s departure for DR I was perversely reminded of Carlito Brigante’s last-minute scramble to skip town and flee to the Bahamas. Maybe I had Stockholm syndrome from seeing so many Latinos depicted as criminals.

Usnavi’s bodega, where his younger cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) works illegally alongside him, is the place to be. Nearby, at the beauty salon where Vanessa unwillingly paints nails, we see familiar scenes, feminine gossip about who’s slept with who, bawdy jokes – all things that the woke Vanessa and her best friend, done-good Ivy Leaguer, Nina (Leslie Grace) wish to distance themselves from. Nina’s beleaguered father, Kevin Rosario (a seasoned Jimmy Smits) owns a minicab company and bets the firm on paying her college fees. There is a great scene where Nina tells her father that his income can’t cover her fees, to which he replies, ‘You can’t say to me what I can and can’t afford – I’m your father’. Kevin’s pride wounded, he leaves; powerless yet a provider, a father condemned not by a lack of love but for not tallying his numbers.

A Washington Heights salsa club scene harks back to Saturday Night Fever or the club scenes in Summer of Sam with John Leguizamo; Usnavi has unique flair, humble ghetto grace, and is unwittingly funny on various occasions, especially with his goofy, cack-handed attempts to woo Vanessa in his bodega, witnessed with glee by young Sonny. 

The importance of elsewhere is a theme all dual-nationality people will relate to, visiting your home away from home, to put it quaintly; quaint because we feel so defensively passionate about it; a home that absolves us, the picture getting sweeter the rougher it gets – a reverse Dorian Gray… Sometimes, though, when you listen to your thoughts in Spanish or whatever your other, lesser-known half is, you hear something ill-advised, unusable in it, something forged, or just ill-matched to the atmosphere you perceive. Lost in translation, perhaps. Advice too wild to adapt to one’s way of life. There’s something so very genuine in that thought echoed in the film; we live in untamed minds, and what’s important is to have a reserve of wild, in our divided selves, if only to be able to survive, in our pettily demarcated Western world.