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Arts and Culture

The Dark-Skinned Afro-Latinx Erasure In 'In The Heights'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The composer Lin-Manuel Miranda is responding to criticism of his new film, "In The Heights." In a post on Twitter, he apologized for the lack of Afro-Latino representation in the movie version of the musical. This is after many people raised concerns, including our next guest, Felice Leon. She wrote about this for The Root, where she's a producer.

Welcome.

FELICE LEON: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So "In The Heights" is about the New York City neighborhood Washington Heights. And you are a New Yorker born and raised. So what do the people of that neighborhood look like to you in real life?

LEON: So in real life, folks in Washington Heights - you know, it's a predominantly Dominican neighborhood. You will see lots of darker-skinned, brown-skinned Dominicans. You'll see, certainly, some folks who are like my - I'm Cuban. You'll see some Cubans, some Puerto Ricans. But this is a predominantly Dominican neighborhood where you will, again, see darker, brown Dominicans.

SHAPIRO: And in contrast, what is the movie version of Washington Heights look like?

LEON: Wow. The movie version - you know, there were some dancers there, you know, and so...

SHAPIRO: With darker skin, yeah?

LEON: Correct. So there were some dancers with darker skin and, you know, some folks who perhaps would have been in the Heights, some - definitely some lighter-skinned Latino people as well. But the principal cast was predominantly lighter-skin Latino people.

SHAPIRO: You spoke about this with the film's director, Jon Chu, and with several of the cast members. What was your message to them and how did they respond?

LEON: Ultimately, you know, the conversation with him was, you know, this is something that we could do better. But it also was - you know, there was the comment about, did you not see the dancers? That was something that came up from him. And also, Melissa Barrera...

SHAPIRO: Who is one of the leading actresses...

LEON: Correct.

SHAPIRO: ...In the movie, yeah.

LEON: Correct. She's one of the leading actresses, and that was a point. And that actually - that really kind of caused me to pause for a bit. I was just like, wow, dancers - right. So background dancers, so they do not have lines. They are relegated to the background. They are, you know, sort of like a decoration. They are entertainment in that way, but they do not have a substantive storyline. And that very much felt like, you know, where - how we've seen Black and darker Latinx people, you know, as maids in telenovelas, as we've seen. And in this film also, there were, you know, Black women in the hair salon, as I'm sure you noticed if you saw the film as well.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. We should note that one of the main characters is played by a Black actor - Corey Hawkins. He's not an Afro-Latino character, but he is a dark-skinned Black man.

LEON: Correct. But he also plays Benny, who is to be a non-Latinx Black man. That's his character, so.

SHAPIRO: One response to your critique has been, look, it's so hard for Black and Latinx people to find space in Hollywood. Here is a movie that centers them. This is a team that is trying to tell stories that are not often told. Why go after this film that has an almost entirely Latinx cast and is telling stories about people who are not white?

LEON: Right. So that response, I'm finding, is coming from a place of privilege, those who are saying, hey, you know, this is progress for all of us. But I would say if progress doesn't include all of us, i.e. darker Latinx people, then is this truly progress?

SHAPIRO: Last night on "The Daily Show," Lin-Manuel Miranda responded to some of these concerns, and he expanded on the apology that he posted on Twitter. Here's part of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I can't legislate how people feel. Like, again, all I want is for this neighborhood to feel seen. And if there's a segment of it that doesn't feel seen and they're saying that, like, you have to acknowledge that and let it in. And, you know, all I can do is learn from it and promised to do better.

SHAPIRO: So what do you think of that response?

LEON: I am, at this point, really tired of having to wait and having to sort of be in line. And I'm saying this, again, from the perspective of a Black woman of Cuban descent. Yes, he must do better - period. At this point, you know, this is a $55 million project. This was his chance to knock it out of the park. I do think that Lin should know better at this point. And we are tired of waiting, and we're tired of having to wait for the next project and the next opportunity to be seen. The time is now.

SHAPIRO: This is obviously an issue that goes way beyond "In The Heights." Can you put it into a broader context for us?

LEON: Absolutely. So, you know, the issues of colorism and pigmentocracy have gone on for centuries. There are large populations of Black, dark-skinned Latino people living in South America and in Central America and in the Heights and in Queens, et cetera, et cetera. And to erase that group of people continues a legacy of erasure and violence towards Blackness within Latinidad, right? And at this point, this anti-Blackness can go on no more.

SHAPIRO: Felice Leon is a producer at The Root.

Thank you for speaking with us.

LEON: Ari, it was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.