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in the heights controversy
(Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Macall Polay

Film

Despite the Controversies, In the Heights Will Endure

Tribeca 2021

In the Heights, the new movie musical adapted from the hit stage play the creator of Hamilton, arrived last weekend, for a simultaneous theatrical and HBO Max release. 

The film, set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, tells the story of a young man named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) debating whether to depart the rapidly gentrifying block to head back to the Dominican Republic while trying to romance aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera.) The secondary couple is young taxi dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) and returning college girl Nina (Leslie Grace.) 

After a year’s delay due to the pandemic, In the Heights has arrived. And that arrival came with dynamite word of mouth. 

Critics, some of whom saw the film over a month ago, raved over it. It had a raucous premiere, outdoors and in person, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week, and fans of the stage show spent the opening weekend posting nearly entirely positive reactions to In the Heights, whether they saw it in theaters or on HBO Max. The film received an A rating on Cinemascore, indicating that those who saw it liked it. 

in the heights controversy
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max | Photo Credit: Macall Polay

But then, in the latter part of the weekend, word came that the movie’s box office receipts were less than stellar. According to Box Office Mojo, In the Heights earned just $11.4 million at the box office, placing it second behind A Quiet Place: Part II

It is, perhaps, a welcome sign of a return to normalcy that film culture is having an argument about box office totals, for the first time in 15 months. But the box office numbers set off a bit of hand-wringing about In the Heights, and what they mean for the film, its legacy, and the future prospects of musicals, as well as movies with primarily Latino casts. 

There are a few explanations that have been put forward as to why In the Heights didn’t perform better. It was released simultaneously on HBO Max. The cast doesn’t really have any big stars, and while In the Heights is a popular musical, it wasn’t nearly the culture-wide phenomenon that Hamilton was. Also, movie musicals have tended to build up their audiences over time. The Greatest Showman, a massive musical hit in 2017, didn’t open especially strong but grew into a $435 million smash as word of mouth build over several months. 

Then there was another explanation put forward for the low box office performance. Breitbart.com’s clownish pop culture vertical decided to position In the Heights as “Hollywood’s umpteenth woke box office fail.” You might think the author would lay out a reason for why the film is “woke,” and why it failed for exactly that reason, but then he admits that he hasn’t actually seen the film. 

Image via Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max | Photo Credit: Macall Polay

What exactly is it that has convinced this author, who has not seen In the Heights, that it’s “woke,” and therefore a failure because it’s woke? Is it because it’s centered around non-white people? If that’s what makes something woke, and being woke is bad… well, you’re kind of giving the game away right there, aren’t you? 

The movie isn’t especially political. Sure, there’s one scene involving a protest in favor of Dreamers, and throughout the film expresses a general sentiment against gentrification. But about 95 percent of In the Heights is an apolitical celebration of a neighborhood, its culture, and generally love and joy. 

It’s an unbelievably lazy critique to just declare “wokeness” the enemy, and declare that’s the reason why a movie “failed”- for one thing, it doesn’t actually require watching the movie itself But it doesn’t seem to apply all the time. Get Out was “woke,” so was Black Panther. Both were massive hits while embracing political concepts much more incendiary than anything even hinted at by In the Heights. 

And that’s to say nothing of Hamilton, which was, by any reasonable definition, more “woke” than In the Heights. It’s also the most popular stage musical of the century, and its movie version broke streaming records on Disney+ last summer. 

I can say that In the Heights is at the very beginning of its life cycle as a film, and for something with such positive word of mouth, it wouldn’t be shocking if its audience actually grew over time. 

Then there’s the question of colorism. 

Some viewers of the film have, upon viewing it, noticed that most of the major roles of Hispanic characters are played by lighter-skinned performers, while darker-skinned characters are relegated more to background roles. This is quite different from the demographic makeup of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself, which is largely populated with darker-skinned Afro-Dominicans. 

The director, Jon M. Chu, and several actors in the movie were asked about this in an interview with The Root while promoting the film, and their answers drew much disappointment from those leveling critiques. 

My personal demographic background says that I’m not the person to weigh in on this specific question, and I won’t, except to say that the filmmakers and cast members should have been a lot more prepared for these kinds of questions. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Auntie Bonnie

    June 17, 2021 at 1:03 am

    Pretty cool stuff there in that byline.

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