Lin-Manuel Miranda was 19 when he first wrote what he called “a very bad musical” which only saw five notes go into the final version of “In the Heights”, which won four Tony Awards after its Broadway premiere in 2008.
Now, after a long walk to find the right studio to produce the film adaptation, the highly anticipated film premieres on Thursday. Like the stage version, it breaks new ground as it focuses on Latino characters that have long been lacking in mainstream movies, TV shows, and theatrical productions.
“In the Heights” tells the stories of generations of residents and business owners in New York’s predominantly Latin Washington Heights neighborhood, where Miranda, now 41, grew up. They balance their personal aspirations with the struggle for their close-knit community as wealthier outsiders begin to settle in, threatening to displace them.
Miranda and her co-writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, had to fight against directors and film producers who wanted to lean on worn tropes that have disproportionately portrayed Latinos as the help, criminals or individuals who live only traumatized lives.
“Quiara and I stayed true to our guns and what we thought was important in the storytelling of the series,” such as having Nina, one of the main characters, portray the internal conflicts of a first generation student. , Miranda told NBC News. . Making this central female character a smart one, the Stanford University student was one of many intentionally created roles that resonated with Latino audiences when the musical was released.
Achieving non-stereotypical representations of Latinos took “a lot of gut checks” during the review process, to make sure it stays true to “what are your non-negotiators,” Miranda said.
He recalled a time when a producer he admires made him doubt his own ability to compose the music for “In the Heights”.
“People who are on the fringes of other people’s stories most of the time in big Hollywood or big Broadway, they get the limelight.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda
“And then my guts made my stomach ache,” Miranda said. “And I said, ‘If I don’t know how to write the songs for this neighborhood, then nobody knows how to write the songs for this neighborhood. That’s the only thing I know I can do.’”
The film’s Latino visibility overload, from the main cast to the extras, allowed talented Latino creatives to shine a light on the vibrancy, humanity and struggles of a community that often feels unnoticed.
“This summer of 2019 the shooting of the movie was so magical, but it almost didn’t feel real,” Miranda said of filming the movie in her own neighborhood in upper Manhattan.
Hudes, who wrote the book for the musical version of “In the Heights” and the screenplay for the film adaptation, said some of that magic came from the “healing spirit” inherent in the film.
“Part of that healing is through exuberant music and dancing. Another part of this healing goes through the individual stories, and while everyone has a different path in this film, they are linked by similar issues – especially as immigrants, as migrants. Is the house over there? Is it here at home? Is there only one house or can we carry several houses within us? said Hudes. “And when you love this house, but dream of going beyond? Does this betray this house? “
Make new stars
Like “Black Panther” for black actors and “Crazy Rich Asians” for Asian actors, “In the Heights” stands out for showcasing Latino talent, including faces and voices that are yet to be known.
In an analysis, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California found that only 4.9% of speaking roles in top movies of 2019 went to Latinos, even though they make up almost 19%. of the country’s population. Forty-four of this year’s Top 100 movies had absolutely no Latino characters with speaking roles, a rate that wasn’t much different from 2018 (47 movies) or 2015 (40 movies).
“We are making up for lost time,” said Miranda.
In an effort to curb this trend, Hudes said she was intentional when writing.
“As a playwright, as a screenwriter, I create jobs. I can create roles for the actors. And so, I’m thinking very carefully about what would be a great job to create, ”she said.
With the help of director Jon M. Chu, the filmmakers presented an effective mix of new emerging talent and well-known veteran actors such as Jimmy Smits and Olga Merediz, who is reprising her beloved role of Abuela Claudia (Grand- mother Claudia) from the original Broadway version. The formula of established and new actors proved their worth in Chu’s 2018 blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians”.
“He wanted to star” and “invite a new generation of talent that hasn’t really had any opportunities on this great platform yet,” Hudes said of Chu’s vision.
At the helm of this new generation of Latino actors in Hollywood film is Anthony Ramos, who plays Usnavi, a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic.
Growing up in Bushwick in Brooklyn, another predominantly Latin neighborhood in New York City, and playing Usnavi for three weeks in a Kennedy Center production in 2018 gave Ramos the right amount of personal and professional experience to play his biggest role since. his appearance at the Oscar. winner of the film “A Star Is Born” and originally the roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Miranda’s award-winning huge Broadway hit “Hamilton”.
Ramos, 29, had a motto on the set: “It’s for the mother culture ——. Let’s go, ”he was saying like a really hyped man.
Ramos said the idea that “this movie is about something much bigger than you” helped him get through long hours of rehearsals and shoots, no matter how tired he felt. At the same time, he said, his inner child would remind him how much he wanted a movie like “In the Heights” when he was growing up.
Merediz, 65, said she remembered filming in Washington Heights and seeing “the real people who live there, walking the streets and I was like, ‘Look, there’s Abuela, there there’s Daniela, “” referring to some of the main characters in the movie.
“These were the real people from the neighborhood that we portrayed” in the film, Merediz said. “And I like playing characters like that we don’t usually see – to highlight this little old lady we ignore, who is invisible.”
In “In the Heights”, Abuela Claudia is the matriarch par excellence. She left Cuba in 1943 and settled in the neighborhood, eventually becoming the surrogate grandmother of all the young people there.
Merediz, the film’s most likely Oscar nominee, said she drew inspiration from some of the mother figures in her life, including her aunt and mother.
“I wanted to make her that person that everyone goes to for advice or for a good cooked meal,” Merediz said. “She’s been through so much, she has so much to offer. But I wanted to give her that extra cuteness that we all need.
Abuela Claudia’s benevolent heart is brought to the fore in Merediz’s masterful performance of what Miranda called a “six-minute aria” titled “Paciencia y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”). Viewers get a glimpse of how this older woman strives to keep her dignity by clinging to a collection of details and memories that remind her of her humanity, despite the trials.
“To me that’s what makes it special,” Miranda said. “People who are on the fringes of other people’s stories most of the time in big Hollywood or big Broadway, they get the limelight.”
When asked if “In the Heights” marked a pivotal time for Latin portrayal in Hollywood, Miranda replied, “I hope so.” His cautious optimism comes from his previous experience bringing “In the Heights” to Broadway and seeing how the show managed to increase audience diversity and attendance over its three years – “and then goodbye,” said Miranda.
“What do people write? What are you producing? What are you putting your money on on stage? Miranda said. “If you don’t build it they won’t come, and if you don’t support the Latino talent behind the scenes.”
But Merediz feels more optimistic about this moment.
“I think this is a turning point,” she said. “Finally, after trying so hard. Is it our time? Is it our time? No, I think it’s our time.
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