NEW YORK (AP) — Color. Dance. Music. Joy. An all Latino cast!
The hype for “In the Heights” has brought great expectation for Latinos in the United States, a group that’s been historically underrepresented and widely typecast in films. With upcoming titles like “Cinderella” with Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” with Mexican star Salma Hayek and Steven Spielberg’s revival of “West Side Story,” it’s just the beginning of a string of productions that place Latinos front and center.
“In the Heights,” which opens Friday, is an adaptation of the Tony-award winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes about the hopes and struggles of residents of New York City’s Washington Heights. Directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), many hope it will mark a new beginning on the big screen for the largest minority group in the country — one that mirrors shifts that have already happened for Black and Asian actors and creators.
“You know, every decade there’s, ‘Is this movie gonna break through? Or is this particular music style gonna break through? Or this particular performer or singer? Are they gonna open the doors for a kind of explosion?’”, says Jimmy Smits, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “I think the dynamics right now in terms of where we are culturally, just in terms of our population, and the potential economic power that we have, … the universe aligned in a nice way.
“You have this beautiful collage of people in the community,” says Smits, the star of “NYPD Blue” and “West Wing” who plays Kevin Rosario, a single father and the owner a taxi cab service, in “In the Heights.” “It’s the immigrant experience that’s been part of the fabric of this country since it started. And it’s positive. So we need that right now after the pandemic.”
John Leguizamo agrees.
“I think that ‘In the Heights’ is gonna be THE project that changes the whole thing finally,” says the Colombian-American actor and playwright, who started his career on film and television but, like Miranda, found a place to tell his stories — and validation of this work — on and off Broadway.
Leguizamo, who won a special Tony Award in 2018 for his commitment to bringing diverse stories and audiences to Broadway through his one-man shows including “Freak, “Ghetto Klown” and “Latin History for Morons,” says he’s been pitching stories to Hollywood for 30-plus years.
“I started to believe that maybe I don’t know how to write, maybe I just don’t know how to pitch, cause all my stories were rejected,” he says. “And then I started to realize, ‘Oh my God, it’s because it was Latin content!’ They didn’t know what to do with it.
“They weren’t rejecting my ability, there were rejecting my culture.”
He found success on the stage “because there aren’t any gatekeepers in theater,” he says. “I just needed to write something dope, get somebody to produce it and the audience was so hungry for it. They were dying to see themselves!”
Almost 60 million Hispanics lived in the United States as of 2018, the Census Bureau estimates. And many are devoted filmgoers: Latinos had consistently led the box office, reaching 29% of tickets sold, according to the latest Motion Picture Association report on theatergoers.
Yet they only represent 4.5% of all speaking or named characters and a mere 3% of lead or co-lead actors, a 2019 study of 1,200 popular movies from 2007 to 2018 by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found.
Awards recognition, too, has been elusive. This year’s Oscars featured a diverse slate of nominees, but no Latino performers.
“I think our absence at the Oscars was appalling,” Leguizamo says. “(But) the Oscars is the symptom; the disease is Hollywood. We need more Latin executives making decisions.”