Lin-Manuel Miranda was 19 when he first wrote what he called “a very bad musical” that saw only five notes make it into the final version of “In the Heights,” which won four Tony Awards following its Broadway premiere in 2008.
Now, after a long trek to get the right studio to produce the film adaptation, the highly anticipated movie premieres Thursday. Like the stage version, it breaks ground because it centers on Latino characters that have long been missing in mainstream films, TV shows and theater productions.
“In the Heights” tells the stories of generations of residents and business owners in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of New York City’s Washington Heights — where Miranda, now 41, grew up. They’re balancing their personal aspirations with fighting for their tight-knit community as wealthier outsiders start moving in, threatening to displace them.
Miranda and his co-writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, had to fight movie executives and producers who wanted to rely on worn-out tropes that have disproportionately portrayed Latinos as the help, criminals or individuals who only live trauma-ridden lives.
“Quiara and I stuck to our guns and stuck to what we felt was important in the storytelling of the show,” such as having Nina, one of the main characters, embody the internal conflicts a first-generation college student, Miranda told NBC News. Making that central female character a smart, Stanford University student was one of the many intentionally created roles that resonated with Latino audiences when the musical came out.
Achieving nonstereotypical portrayals of Latinos required “a lot of gut checks” during the revision process, to ensure it stayed true to “what are your non-negotiables,” Miranda said.
He remembered a time in which a producer he admires made him doubt his own ability to compose the music for “In the Heights.”
“The people who are in the margins of other people’s stories so much of the time in mainstream Hollywood or mainstream Broadway, they get the spotlight.” — Lin-Manuel Miranda
“And then my gut made me sick to my stomach,” Miranda said. “And I said, ‘If I don’t know how to write the songs for this neighborhood, then no one knows how to write the songs for this neighborhood. It’s the one thing I know I actually can do.'”
The movie’s overload of Latino visibility, from the main cast to the extras, brought an opportunity for talented Latino creatives to spotlight the dynamism, humanity and struggles of a community that often feels unnoticed.
“That summer of 2019 filming the movie was so magical, but it almost didn’t feel real,” Miranda said about filming the movie in his own neighborhood, in the northern part of Manhattan.
Hudes, who wrote the book for the musical version of “In the Heights” and the screenplay for the film adaptation, said part of that magic comes from the film’s inherent “healing spirit.”
“Part of that healing happens through exuberant music and dance. Another part of that healing happens through the individual stories, and even though everyone has a different path in this movie, they are connected by similar questions — especially as immigrants, as migrants. Is over there home? Is here home? Is there only one home or can we carry many homes within us?” Hudes said. “What about when we love this home, but we have dreams to go beyond it? Is that betraying this home?”
Making new stars
Like “Black Panther” did for Black actors and “Crazy Rich Asians” for Asian actors, “In the Heights” stands out for showcasing Latino talent, including faces and voices who are not yet household names.
In an analysis, the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 4.9 percent of the speaking roles in 2019’s top movies went to Latinos, even though they represent nearly 19 percent…