‘In the Heights’: A Brilliant Kaleidoscope of Culture and Creativity

“In the Heights” may be the most unapologetically bold and visually enchanting movie musical we have ever received. After a pandemic as brutal as a scolding summer day, Hollywood gifted us a movie event as refreshing and inviting as the piragua served on the streets of Washington Heights. “In the Heights” is a story told by the charming Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) about an Upper Manhattan block of dreamers. Here, “the streets were made of music.” They live in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge until the sun rises on the Hudson to embolden the colorful Latin culture and sparkling sueñito (little dream) of each resident. There is an unwavering sense of community and fierce protection of culture told through thrilling dance, song and visual art, allowing the audience to experience firsthand what it means to be home. 

Adapted from the 2008 Broadway show composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and penned by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who returned to create the film with Jon M. Chu, “In the Heights” is an impeccably executed story by this powerful creative team. Their combined visions magnify the music, love, family and bond shared by a barrio that raised their voices up in the face of opposition. In addition to the parallel love stories that intersect the bustling lives of the characters, “In the Heights” features Ramos as Usnavi, or better the heart and soul of the neighborhood. His ambition and tenacity empower the people around him to never lose sight of their dreams. What makes him special is that he learned from his adoptive Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) that “we had to assert our dignities in small ways.” Generations of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and more Latin territories have settled in Washington Heights to make a start for their lives and families with the hope of economic prosperity. “In the Heights” is in its heart the story for those who tirelessly hustle to inch closer to their dreams in a country that tries to dissolve their identity.

HBO Max

To expand on his story, Usnavi dreams of returning to his roots in the Dominican Republic and reopening his parents’ store to solidify their legacy, while his love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dreams of running away from her roots in Washington Heights to become a downtown fashion designer. Nina (Leslie Grace) is regarded as “the one who made it out.” Her father who moved to New York from Puerto Rico poured his ambitions into her success, pushing her through school and off to Stanford even though she later takes it upon herself to drop out of the white-dominated university with which she feels no belonging. Her boyfriend, Benny (Corey Hawkins), has an impeccable work ethic as a dedicated dispatcher for Nina’s father’s company, yet dreams of going to business school and owning his own company. These characters experience restrictions based on the color of their skin in their uphill climb to the light at the end of the tunnel, but, at the end of the day, they embrace their ties to heritage and wear it with pride. The cast is a talented ensemble that represents the hopes and dreams of this real community because they authentically, boldly and magically, through their musical performance, ring true the resilience of a group that refuses to be silenced.

Given his prowess with “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda is no stranger to revolutionizing the artistic representation and integrity of immigration in the United States. Usnavi and the people of Washington Heights take the same bold strokes as a familiar immigrant, Alexander Hamilton, who tirelessly climbed and eventually made his visions for his life a reality. But what this show portrays on a grander scale is the idea that loyalty to those roots can shape or change the paths people make for themselves. Without blatantly making the musical a story of the effects of gentrification and harsh immigration policy in the States, Miranda masterfully sculpts these characters as people who fight for themselves and for their identities. The ultimate combative measures taken in this story to ensure their dreams survive are meant to relate to those who share the same experiences. Miranda, a cultured historian, recognizes how deeply influenced modern culture is by people of color and how, in this age, there is no way to completely diminish their visibility. The character Nina, for instance, has long shared a passion for social justice with young Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) and upon learning he is undocumented with no pathway for higher education, she is fueled to return to college and make this college experience a reality for all undocumented children. The stunning visuals during the “Carnaval del Barrio” scene of every flag dancing over the community representing the origin of these people most poetically captures how “In the Heights” is truly a rally and celebration of Latin life.

Bursting with color and energy every second, the 145-minute runtime makes the audience feel as though they have been dancing in the city streets for only a few minutes. Yet, when the dancing draws to a close, you can’t help feeling like springing out of your seat and buying another ticket. This movie is enchanting, powerful and important. It makes stars out of its performers with songs and gravity defying dances that vibrantly bring the city to life. Despite these dreams to leave the Heights and create a life beyond the corner store, one of the greatest takeaways is the fact that home is not defined by one location. Home is culture, heritage and the people and places that raised you. Home is the love and warmth you feel when you find community. It didn’t matter where these characters ended up ultimately, as home is something that is always carried in their hearts. “In the Heights” is a treat for eyes and ears. Not only is it a joyous and stunning display of what it means to hold tight to dreams and hold tight to each other, but it also evokes pride in the people and places that raised you that will always carry you to your dreams and make you feel at home. Watch this movie as soon as possible and be welcomed to Washington Heights with open arms.

‘In the Heights’ is now showing in theaters and is available to stream on HBO Max.

By Elisabeth Hudak

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