Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera star in ‘In The Heights.’ Photo courtesy Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment.

In The Heights is an undoubted masterpiece. Thirteen years after its 2008 Broadway debut (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical and adapted from Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book), its return to the spotlight is now in cinemas — what appeared to be a gift to moviegoers yearning for the summer tradition of in-person theatres after a year confined to streaming services. The musical, now-directed by Jon M. Chu (who brought to life Crazy Rich Asians), is a glorious mosaic of the immigrant experience, the undaunted resilience of New York’s Washington Heights and the complexities of Latinx culture. In the film and original musical, the Heights may not be the place where dreams come true, but it is a place where dreams persevere under the sweltering heat of summer. While fans rejoice as the film captures the hearts of a nation reeling from a year of tumult, others are critiquing one of the pictures’ gravest flaws and it isn’t just the tweaks in some of the beloved musical numbers. This cinematic adaptation is glaringly absent of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx characters in principal roles amidst a largely fair-skinned and white-passing cast.

In an interview with Chu and other cast members, The Root’s Felice Léon, who is a Black woman of Cuban descent and specifically from New York, addressed the film’s erasure of dark-skinned performers, the prevailing colorism in Hollywood and how it all contributes to the myth of Latinx homogeneity. Léon asked, “What are your thoughts on the lack of Black Latinx people represented in your film?” Chu revealed that after discussions, presumably with production, he realized that he “needed to be educated about” the absence of Black Latinx folks. “In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get people who were best for those roles,” he said, adding, “But I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin. I think that’s a really good conversation to have, something that we should all be talking about.” Just recently in an interview with Insider, Chu also addressed controversy with his critically-hailed 2018 romcom Crazy Rich Asians for the consequential one-dimensional depiction of stereotypically casting South Asian actors as domestic workers.

Melissa Barrera, who plays aspiring fashion designer Vanessa, said the audition process did include darker-skinned Afro-Latinos but noted that the casting department “were looking for just the right people for the roles.” She further explained, “And because the cast ended up being us, and Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like.” Regardless, for the Afro-Latinx community the use of darker-skinned performers to exist as second fiddles and contextualization characters in an industry that insufferably ignores them feels like a mockery. Responding to Chu’s note of the diversity in background dancers, Léon said, “Those are roles that, historically, we’ve been able to fill. We’ve been able to be the dancers, we’ve been able to be in the hair salons and this and that. But, like, a lead? That’s the breakthrough.” She continued, “We want to see Black people In the Heights. We wanna see Afro-Panamanians, Black Cubans, Black Dominicans. That’s what we want to see. That’s what we were yearning for and hoping for.”

thoughts?