The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is a likable, magnetic bodega owner who saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines, and sings about a better life. In the Heights fuses Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics with director Jon M. Chu’s storytelling to capture a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience.
Washington Heights, aka “Uptown” aka “Da Heights” is located in the upper part of Manhattan. Its known for its large Dominican community and its where this vibrant Broadway musical, winner of four Tony awards created by Lin-Manuel Miranda takes place and now the film adaptation of the musical “In The Heights” will be release in theaters and streaming exclusively on HBO Max, June 10th.
If you’ve only seen Miranda’s last production, Hamilton, you’ll be partly prepared for In the Heights’ hip-hop infused lyrics, brought to life by a talented cast of newcomers, which you will love.
Set over three days leading up to a citywide power blackout, In the Heights is a cocktail of stories from a neighborhood much of whose population hails from the Dominican Republic. Leading the pack is Usnavi (Ramos), the owner of a bodega store who is scrimping to return to his native country. If only his plans weren’t complicated by his feelings for fashion student Vanessa (Mexican-born Melissa Barrera).
Barrera has been increasingly vocal about Latino representation in Hollywood, and credits 2018’s edgy “Vida,” in part, with lighting that spark. “I learned a lot about Latinx representation, and the lack of it,” she says. “We had a nonbinary actor, so it was also about queer representation, and trans representation, and all these things that, in Mexico, I wasn’t exposed to.”
These days she’s making a point to push for nonstereotypical Latinx roles in Hollywood — a place where, not so long ago, she says Salma Hayek was the only Mexican actress Barrera had as a role model. “I feel like, whenever I can, I want to raise my voice for my community, and present in a way that makes everybody proud. So little boys and girls growing up watching the stories I’m doing see themselves, and can point to the character and be like, ‘I can do that as well.’ ”
She doesn’t have a problem pushing back on roles she sees as stereotypical or racist. “A lot of the scripts I get, I’m like, ‘You don’t understand how this is a negative portrayal.’ But when I say no, I always explain why. I’ve had a few people come back and go, ‘I hadn’t thought of that, thank you, and I’ll work on a rewrite.’ So that’s a little bit of my contribution. Not just saying no, but explaining why that is damaging.”
The 30-year-old Barrera, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for two years before leaving to take a role in a telenovela back home. The four years she spent in Mexican soaps were like acting boot camp, an experience she wouldn’t trade for anything
Another love story shapes up between Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Straight Outta Compton’s Dr. Dre, Corey Hawkins), who works for the cab company run by Nina’s father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits). Nina starts out having just quit Stanford, unable to find her place among the wealthy elite, a typically socially conscious plotline adeptly tackled by Jon M. Chu, the film’s director
The film tackles real issues, from gentrification to class divisions, it’s a story about the everyday grind. “A dream isn’t some sparkly diamond … sometimes it’s rough,” says Usnavi, our narrator and guide. The sparkly-eyed Ramos, who featured on stage in Hamilton, is the heartbeat of the film, however Miranda, who cameos as a street vendor, could also lay claim to that.
Occasionally Chu dips into fantasy, as with the mannequin heads that bob up and down in time to the music in the gossipy, busy beauty salon run by Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega). But In The Heights keeps it real for the most part. In the Heights is an essence a love letter to Latino culture and to the power of the collective, it’s a musical filled with joy, struggle, love and spirit.