A Look On The Lighter Side: Spending some time ‘In The Heights’

Judy Epstein

I’ve just spent a great weekend “In the Heights” — by which I mean I’ve been checking out the splashy blockbuster of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first stage success.

In spite of a bit of controversy, it was a toe-tapping lot of fun.  I’m sure it would have been even more fun in an air-conditioned theater on a giant screen. But even at home in my living room on HBO Max, it was great.

About that controversy. No sooner did this movie hit the screen than we heard complaints from some quarters that cast members weren’t Black enough.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who went on several years later to create “Hamilton,” could have just said that this story was based on his own life as a Puerto Rican-American who was born and raised in Washington Heights.  He could have just said if you don’t like it, go ahead and write your own musical.  Or try to.

Instead, he took the high road and decided to apologize. But honestly, of all the people to attack with this complaint — Lin-Manuel Miranda?  The man who made George Washington a Black man? And who decided to cast virtually all of the Founding Fathers as people of color?

In fact, you can use the word “iconoclastic” in its literal meaning of “idol-breaking” for Miranda’s casting of “Hamilton.” At one stroke, he swept into the dustbin of history all the previous rules of who could play what, opening every role to every color. It was daring.  Breathtaking.  Brilliant.

And people only had the nerve to complain about this latest production because of what Miranda had already done in “Hamilton.”  Truly, no good deed goes unpunished!

As for director Jon Chu, he hasn’t escaped criticism either.  Oh, sure, he achieved a masterpiece with the film “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018. Sure, he got recognition for making the first Hollywood film in 25 years with an all-Asian cast.  And, sure, the news at the time was full of stories about people crying from joy at finally seeing themselves represented on screen.

But what has he done lately?

I admit that I do not know what it is like to grow up dark-skinned in America.  But I did grow up one kind of minority, and for me, all the recent craze for “seeing people who look like me” leaves me cold.

I have not seen any movies representing right-handed, blue-eyed Jewish- American girls who used to be tomboys but gained too much weight after having children. But if I had, I don’t think it would change my life.

You know what did in fact change my life and left me feeling validated?

Somebody saying on public radio that being a stay-at-home mom is the hardest job in the world and the least appreciated. And you know who that was?  You won’t believe me.  It was Rick Santorum.  Yes, that Rick Santorum.

Of course, he then went on to blame Hillary Clinton for it, which is where we parted company. But I’m still grateful for his statement. I’ll take my validation where I can get it.

This whole business about “representation” and “looking like me” reminds me of a story I once heard that if a soup company’s ads showed a spoonful of soup, the vegetables and meat in that spoon and bowl had better be in exactly the same proportions as in the actual soup: more carrots than potatoes, more potatoes than chicken, and so on, down to the smallest flake of parsley.

Even if that meant that the photographer had to put glass marbles in the bottom of the bowl, to push the vegetables to the top.

Should we go around making sure that every movie cast has 72 percent Whites (as per 2019 Census estimate numbers), 12.8 percent Blacks, and 0.2 percent Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders?

What about Irish Americans (9.2 percent)? Italian Americans (4.9 percent)? Left-handers (13 percent)?  By that logic, men could only make up 49 percent of any movie’s cast!  Hmmm…maybe I like that one.

But then there could never have been a “Monsters Inc.,” a “Toy Story” or even “WALL-E.”  Nowhere in the census is there a category for sentient robots!

The idea of casting a film by measuring birthplaces or skin tones rather than talent is repugnant to me. Because ultimately, film isn’t about science or technology — it’s about art.  And the only important thing about a work of art is whether or not it tells the truth.

By that standard, “In The Heights” rings true.



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Judy Epstein

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