Film & TV

In the Heights Is Cultural Erasure, Not Celebration

Melissa Barrera and Anthony Ramos in Into the Heights. (Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Miranda’s cultural misappropriation in In the Heights belongs to a mainstream culture that seeks a Latino figure who is acceptable because he is nonthreatening.

The worst cultural appropriation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights comes from the maestro himself. Altering lyrics from the song “96,000,” he reflects the current Obama-style imperiousness. Miranda had originally composed a Black Latino striver’s cheer: “I’ll be a businessman man richer than Nina’s Daddy / Donald Trump and I own the links and he’s my caddy”

Now Miranda rewrites it as “Tiger Woods and I own the links.” This update weakens the social and economic punch. It prevents In The Heights from celebrating triumphant American aspiration; now it’s simply about cultural erasure and self-delusion. Miranda’s Hamilton wasn’t a great show, but it epitomized the Obama era of political power worship through bizarre racial patronization. Now Miranda proves it was all in exchange for pettiness and Soviet-style dishonesty.

Miranda composed his 2008 show about New York City’s Dominican Republic enclave in Washington Heights as if he was putting its non-white immigrant community on display. It’s the same local-color concept handed down from Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, Zoot Suit, and Do the Right Thing. Miranda shamelessly pilfers all four but goes light on sociological angst. His loose story frame about hustling, hardworking little people like bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), car-service owner Kevin (Jimmy Smits), and dreamer Benny (Corey Hawkins) imitates the hip-hop comedies Next Day Air and Lottery Ticket. Miranda — “incredibly talented,” as the media dubs him — puts these keystones through his personal Broadway-processor machine, and Hollywood’s awkward, ersatz result deracinates their essence even further.

Whose idea was it to hand Puerto Rican Miranda’s shallow Dominican folktale over to Jon M. Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians, the most ethnically fake, aggressively woke movie of 2018? In the era when racial groups complain about not being “seen,” Chu depicts the Other as outsiders see them: diversity stereotypes, proud ethnic minions. Miranda’s gimmick of erasing Trump and travestying race and politics is exacerbated by Chu’s ultra-slickness.

Chu smash-cuts TV-commercial clichés that reviewers now mistake for “cinema.” His pseudo street life lacks the spatial and rhythmic sense of Kenny Ortega, who directed the original High School Musical and innovated Michael Jackson’s multivalent This Is It, the last great movie musical. Chu oversells ethnic exuberance with relentless montages (there’s more montage here than in any single film by Eisenstein, Peckinpah, or Bob Fosse) and frenetic dancing. Instead of genuine urban-tribal rituals such as celebrating a $96,000 lottery win, In the Heights offers the choreographic equivalent of groupthink. The big dance sequences are cluttered and regimented rather than diverse. These Heights might as well be Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.

This film’s superficial emotional display comes from Chu’s insensitivity to rhythm and detail. By always presenting the musical numbers as a gigantic, impersonal parade, In the Heights sneaks in an incidental political message (recalling the fondness for protest seen on New York’s partisan local-TV news stations). This chop-socky vision of “mostly peaceful” gatherings are a showbiz activist’s notion of solidaridad. Chu’s goose-stepping for the masses is tiresome.

And yet, In the Heights’s phony “communal” style suits Miranda’s inauthentic Broadway rap. He owes his breakthrough to Eminem’s white hip-hop “breakthrough” — it’s too fast, nonsensual, and bloodless. Miranda’s rushed combinations of rap and recitative breaks the spirit of blues, merengue, and bachata that’s supposed to represent the heart of ethnic peoples. (“My syntax is highly complicated due to the fact that” typifies Miranda’s tortured rhyme scheme.)

Miranda’s cultural misappropriation in In the Heights is the grotesque product of a mainstream culture that seeks a Latino figure who is acceptable precisely because he is politically and artistically nonthreatening. (Imagine the conservative Latino community Miranda might have unmarginalized had he kept his Trump lyric intact.) Black Americans witness this sellout charade all the time, and “Charade” would have been the perfect title for In the Heights. Miranda’s story of colorful New York ethnics proudly protecting their segregated barrio — ghetto — ultimately keeps the town’s existing power structure in the commanding heights.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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