From its opening sequence, Lin Manuel Miranda’s new film “In the Heights” (adapted from the stage musical of the same name) spells out its Disney-ish conceit for the audience. “Once upon a time in a far-away land called Nueva York,” his lead character Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, assures a group of small children seated around him at a mythical Caribbean beach. “The streets were made of music.”
From there, the audience is constantly reminded that those streets were also made of light-and-sweet coffee from uptown bodegas, a smorgasbord of Caribbean cuisine, sex-positive beauty salon gossip, and of course, hot salsa and merengue dancing. But as this extended piece of eye and ear candy unfolds, one has to wonder, haven’t we seen this before? Does representation of Latinos in the US always come down to these what might be called positive stereotypes, a kind of endless Busby Berkeley routine previously tropicalized in works like “West Side Story,” “The Mambo Kings” and “La Bamba?”
Ultimately, “In the Heights,” for all its wholesome escapism, also reveals the limits of Hollywood’s idea of representation.
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