“In The Heights” director Jon Chu and cast address film’s colorism controversy

by Ryan


“In The Heights,” the newest blockbuster offering from director Jon Chu and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is facing criticism for not featuring dark-skinned Latinx actors in prominent roles. 

In an interview with The Root, Chu addressed the accusations of colorism, admitting it was something he had to be educated on. “I think that was something we talked about and I needed to be educated about, of course. In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people that were best for those roles,” he said. 

“I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin. I think that’s a really good conversation to have and something we should all be talking about,” he added. 

The film, based on Miranda’s Tony Award-winning play, tells the story of a Latinx neighborhood and a summer blackout that changes its characters’ lives forever. Written by Miranda in 1999, the show was meant to show Latina representation on the theater stage, something Miranda said he was sorely missing.

The controversy grew after the film debuted on June 11. The film is inspired and takes place in Harlem’s Washington Heights, which has a diverse and thriving Latinx community. Chu and Miranda have previously said they wanted to film to feel like a “love letter” to the community. 

When asked about the lack of Afro Latinx people in the film, Chu said that colorism was an important conversation to have. “Listen, we’re not gonna get everything right in a movie, we tried our best on all fronts of it,” he said. “I do think there’s something to be said about sharing in experiences and me never wanting to say I know what I’m doing but to just give room to everybody to speak up about what we’re doing at that moment.”

In 2018, Chu faced similar accusations after the release of the hit film “Crazy Rich Asians.”

The cast of “In The Heights” on June 9, 2021. 

ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty


The Root also spoke to actresses Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace, who star in the film. Barrera said the casting was focused on finding actors and actresses who embodied the characters. 

“I think it’s important to note though that in the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro Latinos there, a lot of darker-skinned people,” Barrera said. “I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles, for the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent.”

Grace, an Afro Latina actress, admitted she rarely saw darker-skinned people who look like her family on-screen while growing up. She said she hopes “In The Heights” could increase representation and open doors for dark-skinned actors. “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,” she said. 

Both Chu and Barrera pointed to the film’s large dance numbers which included Black and Afro Latinx dancers. But critics argue that darker-skinned people have historically been relegated to background roles. Corey Hawkins, who is Black, plays the role of Benny — the only dark-skinned actor in the main cast. Benny’s role in the film was diminished from its original Broadway script. 

“I enjoyed the movie/love the musical,” author Roxane Gay tweeted. “But it makes no sense to erase the Afro Latinx community who should have been broadly represented in lead and secondary roles. It’s egregious. And it cancels out the enjoyment!”

Some critics said they hope the discussion leads to more inclusive casting in Hollywood. 

“No movie can be everything, to all people, and a movie like In the Heights carries perhaps an unfair burden in certain respects,” writer Aisha Harris tweeted. “But I do think it’s fair to question how colorism, unconscious or no, may have played a part behind the scenes.”





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