In The Heights director Jon M. Chu addresses lack of Afro-Latinx representation

In the Heights debuted in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend. Many people found it odd that that dark-skinned Afro-Latinx were wholly missing from the main characters in a movie set in Washington Heights. People took to Twitter to drag the musical’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda, and director, Jon M. Chu, for the fact that no dark-skinned Afro-Latinx were represented in the main cast. The only dark-skinned Black person in the main cast wasn’t even Latinx. Felice Leon, an Afro-Cuban journalist from The Root, spoke with director Jon M. Chu and some of the cast from the show. Felice asked about the lack of dark-skinned Latinx in the main cast. It went downhill from there. Here are a few highlights via Vulture:

The Root’s Felice León addressed these concerns in an interview with In the Heights director John M. Chu and members of the film’s cast on Wednesday, June 9. “As a Black woman of Cuban descent, specifically from New York City,” León, who is a Black New Yorker of Cuban descent, asks Chu, “What would you say to folks who say that In the Heights privileges white-passing and light-skinned Latinx people?” Chu says, “I would say that that’s a fair conversation to have,” but doesn’t proceed to fully have it. Chu also faced accusations of colorism for his 2018 film, Crazy Rich Asians.

Leslie Grace, who is Afro-Latina and plays Nina, diplomatically addresses the colorism at play in this film and Hollywood at large, saying, “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 adds, “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.”

Melissa Barrera, the Mexican actress who plays Vanessa, chimes in, saying, “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,” clarifying, “Because the cast ended up being us, and because 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.” Chu also points León to diversity among the background dancers, which kind of just proves León’s point.

[From Vulture]

This is not the first time Jon M. Chu has been dragged for excluding darker-skinned people from his films. Folks were hot when Jo excluded darker-skinned South East Asians from Crazy Rich Asians, which was filmed and based in Singapore. Jon and the main actors’ response to Felice’s questioning was an absolute sh*t show. “We chose the best people for the role” is the all time favorite excuse of white and white-adjacent Hollywood. You mean to tell me that there was no one from the people who created the culture being celebrated in In the Heights available to play a major role on Broadway or in the film? This is so problematic.

I tried to watch the show this weekend but I couldn’t get past the white washing of el barrio. Like where the hell are the Black Latinx people that I saw everywhere in Washington Heights when I lived in NYC? This is NOT representation if you are only using the lighter-skinned people and white people from a group to represent that group. It is erasure. Lin Manuel Miranda did release a statement and apologized for the oversight but the fact that ABSOLUTELY NO ONE noticed that the entire set was filled with light-skinned and non-Black Latinx is a massive issue and definitely needs to be addressed. It is also irritating that they threw in some darker skinned Latinx in the background as an after thought. It was an indication of how he and many others view Black people. They either don’t see us at all or they only see us as bit roles in their stories. Despite not being Afro-Latinx, I am Black and I understand colorism and feeling unseen until it suits the narrative. We need to address colorism in casting and representation of post colonial culture, particularly in the Americas.

First 8 minutes of In the Heights:

Lin Manuel Miranda’s apology for the colorism:

A few tweets:

Photos credit HBO

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51 Responses to “In The Heights director Jon M. Chu addresses lack of Afro-Latinx representation”

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  1. Nicole says:

    I came into this movie ready to love it and this took me right out of it. What’s pissing me off even more is the people excusing LMM and saying there are people who will never be satisfied (inadvertent Hamilton reference but I’m keeping it), it’s social justice warriors, too woke, etc. “We can’t tell every story” NO you didn’t tell the *specific story* of the neighborhood the movie is set in! I’m a white passing Mexican American who lived in Inwood (just north of Wash Heights) for five years and I think it’s such a missed opportunity that they cast someone who looks like me as Vanessa.

    (Her response, of the actors, was especially trash. Sorry, we heard you sing and you were clearly not the best talent in the room.)

    • Gabriella says:

      Co-signing everything you said as a white passing Mexican woman. Was so ready to love it but when it was over I just felt disappointed. Lin Manuel has made himself part of the racial discourse in this country, he should know better. As should John Chu, who has heard all of this before and clearly learned nothing. Melissa Barrera over here saying they cast the best people for the role.. honestly she was the most forgettable part of the cast. Just a disheartening experience overall.

    • Oya says:

      Ok, Nicole coming in HOT! LOL…

      • Angelica Schuyler says:

        She’s on point though. I’m a black Dominicana who grew up in Washington Heights. My family still lives there. I’m there several times a week… I’m very disappointed to see this lack of representation. I’m such a big fan of LMM so this is a very big let-down. I haven’t even seen the movie yet, and now I’m going to go into it with negativity clouding my judgement right off the bat. SMH…

    • TaraBest says:

      I tried to watch this last night (was really excited for it!) but only made it halfway through. When Melissa Barrera first came on screen I thought she was Lily Collins! I’ll be honest, I’m not the best at recognizing faces but the way she’s styled in the movie really makes her come off as “white”.

  2. Miss Margo says:

    What’s sad is that everyone is blaming chu and Miranda for this when in fact, the executive producers and producers are to blame. They have final say on everything since they represent the studio. And guess what? They are all white and obviously bias. I hate that Chu is finally getting all these new directing gigs and he’s getting called out for all this. We finally get a mainstream Asian director and he’s being lambasted. Not fair. If chu was white would people be acting like this? Tbh people would be pissed that the director wasn’t a POC… Blame the white executives. Get them in front of the camera and ask them.

    • Jane says:

      Chu and LMM should absolutely bear this criticism. Especially LMM who has a ton of power and clout in the industry. And Chu was criticized for this exact same thing when Crazy Rich Asians came out, so there’s no excusing him either.

      • Miss Margo says:

        No, he doesn’t. I work in film and TV production and let me tell you, at no time do we ever speak to directors or producers about anything pre production (casting) or post (VFX, online). It’s always the executive producers who have the final word. It was shocking to me when I worked on things for Netflix, Amazon and HBO, and only the producers had a say about how the scene went. I’d go “aren’t we going to speak to the director?” And I was met with a “no, the executives have the final say.”

        LMM and chu can have “suggestions” but they final go ahead comes from the studio.

      • Miss Margo says:

        No, he doesn’t. I work in film and TV production and let me tell you, at no time do we ever speak to directors or producers about anything pre production (casting) or post (VFX, online). It’s always the executive producers who have the final word. It was shocking to me when I worked on things for Netflix, Amazon and HBO, and only the producers had a say about how the scene went. I’d go “aren’t we going to speak to the director?” And I was met with a “no, the executives have the final say.” They have the final say.

      • Jane says:

        Yes, he does. And I have family members who work in TV and film, here in NYC. Several of whom worked on this film. He’s a producer on this film, full stop. He has clout, especially here.

    • Bex says:

      Lin-Manuel IS a producer on this film, and the most high profile producer at that. He’s going to get the brunt of the criticism because he’s the one who people know. This isn’t a situation where a writer sold the rights to their books and a studio did their thing.

      He took an active role in this project. Lin-Manuel has the cache to get his projects done despite how Hollywood is strictured. He’s not some up and coming, unproven neophyte. This is the guy with possibly the most box office successful musical in the last decade. He should have gone in and stated how In the Heights HAD to look and feel.

      • NCDancer says:

        And here’s why LMM gets a lion’s share of the criticism. This play is his creation, his vision, his baby. I saw it on Broadway in 2008; the cast didn’t look like Washington Heights then. While I think he is a truly a creative genius, this is a weakness of his. He can only create stories through his own limited experience. It’s the reason he played Usnavi on the stage (and Alexander Hamilton – a play I love but still has issues with colorism) even though he is a rather weak singer and actor. I may have given him a pass in 2008, but 13 years later and after all that has happened in the US since then, not so much.

      • Millennial says:

        This is not LMM’s first issue with colorism in his shows. I can’t find the link now, but a few months ago I read an essay by one of the touring members of Hamilton about how darker-skinned and darker skinned gay men in particular on the touring show have a tough time getting cast/promoted/treated with respect. For that particular actor is really caused a lot of mental health issues to crop up. The problem is the touring producers are majority white men and just don’t see the issues.

      • Ann says:

        Responding to NCDancer and Millennial, I have immense respect for LMM’s work and think his heart is generally in the right place, but like most people he is creating through the lens of his own experience. He grew up in Washington Heights and is of Puerto Rican descent but he’s lighter skinned, his father who immigrated here eventually became an economist (I think?), he went to Wesleyan which is basically Ivy League-level prestige, etc. So, I guess that ends up showing.

        I went to see Hamilton after he had left the cast and I wasn’t at all disappointed to have missed him in the main role. His main (and obviously amazing) contribution was as the creator of the show, not as a singer or even actor. I saw his original replacement who was amazing and most people, I think, concede was just as good as or better than LMM all around.

        Too bad to hear darker skin men have trouble with the touring company. I know one dancer who has auditioned several times without luck, but that’s partly because he’s white and they want more diversity, which he understands.

      • Jane says:

        FYI – you don’t refer to Puerto Ricans who moved to mainland as “immigrants” or say they immigrated here, as Puerto Rico is part of the US.

  3. Becks1 says:

    I don’t understand how you make a movie like that and don’t realize until it’s being released that you messed up the casting like that? I’m not that familiar with NYC in general or Washington Heights in particular so I didn’t pick up on it, but I would assume that the people involved with the movie would have noticed – I was reading an article last week about how much care went into it, right down to making sure the right kind of hot sauce was on the table, that kind of thing. So it seems like it was a conscious choice with the casting.

    That said, I did watch it this weekend and it was one of the best movie musicals I have seen, it really was incredible – so it bums me out that they made a critical mistake like this.

  4. sunny says:

    I liked the movie, the cast was great but literally the first thing I noticed was the lack of afro latinx people. I mean the neighbourhood is supposed to be Dominican! It was wild that they were so oblivious to that, especially with the fraught tensions within that community. Like how do you miss that???

  5. chisey says:

    Yeah, I’m not familiar with Washington Heights, but I do know the show is explicitly supposed to be representing that specific neighborhood, so if they failed to notice they weren’t casting any darker-skinned people when the neighborhood has a lot of them then that is pretty messed up. I had heard the criticism before I saw the movie, and I definitely did notice it, and did find it distracting. I suppose colorism is just so ingrained in people that someone can literally not notice what they were doing, which is wild. People have been so excited for this movie, and it really sucks that it messed up so badly – I don’t think it’s something that can be fixed unless they do a whole other movie, which seems unlikely to happen. So people just have to figure out how to talk about things like the songs and the story alongside this important criticism.

  6. Nlopez says:

    My aunt lives in Washington heights and we visit often. Most people I see there are definitely darker. Everyone assumes Im Dominican and we speak spanish together. Im Black and my husband is Puerto Rican. I watch a lot of spanish speaking TV channels also, & I rarely see Afro Latinos on these channels. Representation matters. I am disappointed in LMM and I agree 100% with NICOLE!

    • YAS says:

      YUP. I currently live in Washington Heights and have lived here for a few years and this didn’t reflect the neighborhood I know and love.

  7. Amy Bee says:

    My question is was the play also whitewashed? Because if it wasn’t then the whitewashing of the movie was deliberate. And don’t films like have a consultant to guide them on cultural inaccuracies? I saw white Latina and Republican Ana Navarro saying on twitter that people said give Lin Manuel a break because he’s a good guy. Even good guys can be wrong.

    • Becks1 says:

      So in the original version of the play, Christopher Jackson is Benny, Lin is Usnavi (the lead), Mandy Gonzalez plays Nina (she was the most recent Angelica on Broadway from Hamilton) and Karen Olivo played Vanessa.

      I looked up Olivo and she’s Puerto Rican, Native American, Chinese and Dominican.

      Olivo went on to play Maria in West Side Story which prompted me to look up THAT movie since the remake is coming out in December, and the person playing Maria is half Colombian (but not Puerto Rican.) At least that’s better than Natalie Wood.

    • NCDancer says:

      I saw the play on Broadway in 2008. It was pretty pale then. Benny was played by Christopher Jackson (Hamilton’s George Washington) so they did make a change by making that character black Jamaican.

  8. Spittair says:

    I’ve been to the Heights and I get that Dominicans come in all shades/races – white, black and everything in between but not ONE Afro-Latinx in this movie?? Really? Tone def AF. How they didn’t see this coming is odd.

    • NCDancer says:

      There are black Latinx in the film but none in the leading cast. Black Latinx people appear as extras and dancers.

  9. Case says:

    This is why creative teams need to be as diverse as possible and why representation at all levels is so important. Clearly no one making this film noticed this issue until it was pointed out to them and that wouldn’t have been the base if there were Black or Afro-Latinx individuals working on the film.

    As a white person I enjoyed the film for what it was, but I see why this is a huge omission.

  10. Lauren says:

    There is a big colorism problem in the Latino community. We are all thought that lighter is better, straight hair is better and all reference to the African roots of Afro-Latinos is bad. I’m not at all surprised that there is this severe lack of representation of Afro-Latinos anywhere. A Dominican actress once said that she has a hard time getting roles because she looks African American, but has a Dominican accent even when speaking English so she is fcked. Hopefully, it’ll get better.

    • Aeren says:

      I agree with you Lauren. We are very focused on racism here in the States but many people don’t know how racist and colorist we can be in Latin America. We are suffering the effects of colonialism to this day and being pale and looking European is still considered very important down there.

  11. Marty says:

    It’s a great film, but if you are going to make a movie specifically about one neighborhood and the culture that resides in it, you have an obligation to represent that region accurately.

  12. Willow says:

    Until my HS Spanish teacher (who loved baseball) introduced my white class to professional baseball players from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic (because they spoke Spanish) none of us had any idea that Latinx could be black. We were so surprised that’s all we could talk about.
    That’s why it’s so important to get representation right. Because most kids grow up in a neighborhood ‘bubble’ and only see other races and cultures in the media.

  13. kath says:

    I watched this movie over the weekend and I absolutely loved it. The poor representation of afro-latinx was definitely a bad thing but I am from South America and I just loved seeing a culture similar to mine being displayed in the big screen as a positive thing. I am just so sick and tired of watching a culture similar to mine being shown in only the negative aspects of crime and poverty. I loved seeing the warmth, the sense of family and community, the vibrancy of my culture being displayed.
    The dinner scene when everyone comes in and are talking loud, hugging and kissing… this is what I see every time my family gathers so it warmed my heart to see it.
    So yes, while the movie should have a afro-latinx representation, especially considering the countries they were mostly representing (some other countries in South America certainly have a more overwhelming brown community than black), I just can’t hate on this movie for the way it made me feel represented

    • Amelie says:

      And I think that’s okay to feel that way. I haven’t watched the movie yet and I’m white so I don’t expect to see myself on screen which is fine–there have been thousands (if not millions) of stories on screen and on the stage that have catered to me for centuries. But I think I will enjoy it because it is set in NYC and I grew up in the suburbs and I love stories set in NYC for obvious reasons since I’m from the area and even lived in the city for a few years (though not in Washington Heights). Not to include Afro-Latinx people was a glaring omission and hopefully if In the Heights becomes a Broadway revival or goes on tour, going forward casting changes can be made. But the celebration of Latinx culture on screen is not something that should be ignored, even if it isn’t perfect and I think people who do feel represented by the movie should be allowed to enjoy it. But those that do not feel represented should also be allowed to voice their opinions about why they didn’t enjoy it either.

      • NCDancer says:

        Agree. I enjoyed the movie – it was beautifully shot and I loved seeing dancers I know from the salsa scene in the performances. And Anthony Ramos is a star. But the omission of black faces is a damn shame and should be called out.

      • Kath says:

        Yes, I agree that we should talk about the lack of Black-Latinx representation for sure. But I don’t want to only throw stones at this movie without recognizing what it does right. Because if movies like this don’t do well, Hollywood won’t want to make anymore, and there will be fewer opportunities to fix the mistake of this one.
        I am currently taking my wins where I can, supporting them and hope to see more of it in the future, all the while learning and fixing what we can on the way.

  14. Steph says:

    This is crazy to me coming from LMM. We’ve both been in this neighborhood our whole lives. We actually had the same polling station for the presidential race. There is absolutely no way he saw this cast and thought, “yes, this looks like my neighborhood.” No way.

  15. ME says:

    Reminds me a lot of Bollywood. They even hire light skinned actors/actresses and then “paint” their skin darker if the role requires a darker skinned person (which rarely happens). It’s gross. Like why not just hire a darker skinned person in the first place? There is still so much work to be done.

    • TQ says:

      Yeah, was just gonna say, this is an Asian problem too (see John Chu, Crazy Rich Asians, etc.). Very disappointed that Chu and LMM did not do better. I do think it is 100% right to hold them accountable. But colorism has been entrenched everywhere for so long (see skin lightening creams, double eyelid surgery, etc.), just as the European colonizers put in place. This is some deep ish. But those with a platform like Chu and LMM need to absolutely do better telling stories across the color spectrum.

  16. Lala11_7 says:

    When I saw the trailer for this…I was like….


    I’m done with LMM et al acting innocent regarding PROPER representation in the year 2021…

    • Holland S says:

      Yeah I saw the trailer and thought “Where are the Black people?” I’m Afro-Latina and noticed it right away. I’m not even from New York and I know that the Afro-Latin population there is ridiculously high.

  17. Imara219 says:

    He deserves all of the heat he is getting for this because, in 2021, this is despicable. I’m all of her catching this smoke. Lin Manuel is a Producer and has the final say with the casting. Washington Heights is a neighborhood with non-ambiguous Black people, Afro-Latinos, which is a whitewashing form. The Director has a racially suspect history with casting and colorism within his films. I’m glad that Lin Manuel made a proper apology because he should have, but I hope this causes him to pause. I am tired of people feeling like people in the African Diaspora should be happy with crumbs concerning representation. I peeped these issues with the trailer and went from excited to “will not watch”.

  18. Catherine says:

    It’s stunning that a Lin Manuel Miranda who used blind cast for Hamilton could be so insensitive. He specifically talked about how blind casting for Hamilton was important because he wanted people to be able to see themselves in the history of this country. He was perfectly comfortable casting people of color to play white people but then whitewashed the portrayal of his own neighborhood. How did he not see the lack of representation. I didn’t see the original play so this just shook me because I was not have expected this kind of bias from someone who has talked about the importance of representation. His apology seems sincere so perhaps this will be a growth experience for him.

    • Isabella Saxon says:

      That’s what I find discouraging. That a savvy director like LMM still needs to learn and grow when it comes to colorism. He had to know that his cast didn’t represent the neighborhood. So why? Why? He doesn’t explain.

  19. L4frimaire says:

    I haven’t seen the movie and while it looks interesting,generally not my style. I love Hamilton and think Lin-Manuel is a good guy, but this missed the mark for some. I’m not from NY but a lot of people from Washington Heights/NY said the film does not look like their neighborhood or reflect the diversity of Latinx people, esp. from the Caribbean. These criticisms are from people from within that culture and it shouldn’t be dismissed. I think a lot of Americans, regardless of ethnicity, subconsciously and sometimes actively, buy into stereotypes of what certain ethnicities should look like, especially on screen which does us all a disservice.

  20. MerryGirl says:

    I saw the movie this weekend and even though it was entertaining and I loved the music, as a black Caribbean person who’s visited NYC, I know my Caribbean brothers and sisters from Spanish speaking islands (particularly Dominican Republic) were not represented in the film. Such a shame and missed opportunity by LMM who should know better.

  21. Aeren says:

    Thank you for editing the last part. I think it makes more sense and includes all of us.

  22. FYI! says:

    FYI: The gender neutral of “Latino/a” is “Latine”. The X is unpronounceable in Spanish. We don’t use the term Latinx. I know people’s use it out of good intentions, but it’s an incorrect term created by people who don’t speak spanish speaking over us (gender neutral/genderfluids latines).

    Thank you! 🙂