' ' Cinema Romantico: In the Heights

Monday, June 28, 2021

In the Heights

There comes a moment during “In the Heights” when Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins) are standing on a fire escape framed by the sunset which is framed by the George Washington Bridge that gives the movie’s real-life Manhattan neighborhood its name. Benny’s body almost seems to float for an instant, like the fire escape is a space capsule, as he plants his feet on the wall of the apartment building, leading Nina in a dance that defies gravity. If it suggests Fred Astaire’s famous dance on the ceiling in “A Royal Wedding”, it also epitomizes the tone of Jon M. Chu’s movie, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical. Though fanciful and even breezy, despite the neighborhood enduring a heatwave, “In the Heights” is grounded in a real place with real problems, a strength giving way to a weakness. 

“In the Heights” is in the Heights, for the most part, assembling a rapid fire collage of the neighborhood as the movie begins to let us know the place itself will be paramount. That collage, though, is also emblematic of how Chu puts together the prominent musical numbers and accompanying dances in tandem with his editor Myron Kerstein, like most modern movies do, with considerable expedient cuts, generally eschewing full-bodied, lengthy shots of people in the groove. True, cinema is a different form than the stage, but cinema is just as much about bodies in motion as stage. At the same time, such editing is representative of what only the movies can do. The cuts themselves frequently embody the rhythm of the music to heighten their effect while at other moments, like insert shots of prepared food (fried chicken and rice, flan) leading to an insert shot of a record spinning suggest the essential ingredients of this world without having to say a word. 

“In the Heights” is seen through the eyes of bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), illustrated in a magnificent shot where the dancers on the street are reflected in the window of his grocery where he gazes out upon them, as if we are seeing the story come to life before his eyes. Indeed, his bodega becomes ground zero for the opening number, sharing the same name as the movie, in which almost all the main characters are brought onstage at once, passing through to purchase café con leche and lottery tickets, including Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), whose sing-songy greeting – “Good morning, Usnavi” – is the sunny emblem of the whole movie. And this song, despite introducing each character’s musical theme, goes to show how the music of “In the Heights” work best as a kind of community mosaic, how everyone plays off of everyone else and how they lift each other up even as Usnavi dreams of leaving the community for his Dominican homeland and his love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), dreams of leaving for downtown to find a job in fashion. 

In emphasizing the community, however, the individual stories suffer. The relationship of Usnavi and Vanessa generates next to no tension and the relationship between Nina and Benny, despite their airless dancing on that wall, generates next to no heat. The one relationship that does work is familial, between Nina and Kevin, the latter doing whatever it financially takes to put his daughter through Stanford even as Nina pushes back, seeing Stanford as a betrayal of her roots, putting into perspective how the movie’s real friction is more existential, between individual pursuits and responsibility to where you’re from. The emergent irony, though, is that where they’re from is being compromised too, evoked in the hair salon owned by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) being forced out of The Heights by rising rent. That gentrification wins and she is forced to leave mid-movie hints at the darker edges, though her leading the neighborhood in a defiant sing-along before she does epitomizes “In the Heights” sticking to the sunny side of the street.

These dueling ideas, of getting out or staying put, are brought home in Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), matriarch of Washington Heights, who raised Usnavi after his parents died. If Usnavi intends to take her with him to the Dominican Republic, she balks in the movie’s best song, “Paciencia y fe”, patience and faith, nothing less than Abuela’s life flashing before her eyes. And though it concludes by remarkably transforming a subway tunnel into a cosmic portal, it can’t compare to an accompanying reverse shot of Abuela looking out from her bedroom, at Usnavi and the others under her wing, illuminated by fireworks out the window, reminding how the simplest of shots can resonate just as much as elaborate ones. This, that shot says, is home.

As her surrogate son, Usnavi is positioned as her spiritual heir, evoked in the embroidered napkins that she gives him as a totem of the immigrant experience. “The little details,” she says of the napkins made by her own mother, “that tell the world we are not invisible.” It’s a great line, if not also revealing given how “In the Heights” has been roundly condemned for colorism. This is not misplaced criticism. Though the movie’s air is fantastical, its locations are real, which is to say it seeks to represent the real Washington Heights. And by failing to cast any dark-skinned Afro-Latinos that make up a predominant part of the real population of The Heights. the movie itself is rendering them invisible, running counter to Abuela’s own words. It does not rule “In the Heights” out of order as a movie but takes some wind out its sails nonetheless, especially given the effective misdirection of the framing device in which Usnavi is posted up on a Dominican beach telling the story of The Heights to his kids. If it seems like he is memorializing his neighborhood by looking back, the reveal instead transforms this device into looking forward (“Pa’lante”, as Daniela says), making it all the more disappointing that “In the Heights” has already taken one step back.

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