In the Heights: Owning our Dignity and Affirming the Natural Dancer in Everyone

A thought struck me as I was smiling and tapping my foot through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights.

Who is the antagonist here? You know, the villain? The big bad? I was too invested in the charming characters, the colorful sets, and the emotionally expressive musical numbers to consider the question.

Perhaps it is gentrification of a neighborhood – in this case, the predominantly Latino Washington Heights in Manhattan, where the residents fight for a community threatened with displacement from wealthy outsiders.

Or perhaps it is simply life itself, as our protagonists struggle with answering questions of where they came from. where they are going, and how they will get there.

One thing is for sure. This is a musical with a lot to say and uses every bit of its 143 minute run time to say it!

Say It, So It Doesn’t Disappear

The opening number of In the Heights has a dual role – establishing an upbeat tone, brimming with energy and bursting with color, and establishing each of our principal characters.

We have the endlessly charming Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who narrates our story to a gaggle of adorable kids. (Say it, so it doesn’t disappear,” he admonished them. Kids: “WASHINGTON HEIGHTS!”)

Usnavi runs a little bodega – basically a corner store – and harbors dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, where he immigrated at the age of 8. He is assisted by his teenage cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and cares for Abuela Claudia who in turn helped raise him … and seemingly everybody else on the block! She is played by Olga Meridez, returning to her Tony nominated role.

Then there is aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) with sights on finding upwards mobility with her living situation. She is also the crush of Usnavi, a fact not lost on Sonny, who, true to “little sibling” form, teasingly torments his cousin.

Block Party!

While we naturally fall for and root for this collection of characters to succeed and thrive, I found myself most captivated by Nina (Leslie Grace), a college student at Stanford, who in a homecoming, reconnects with both the neighborhood (“My BLOCK!” she proudly exclaims) and a former flame, Benny (Corey Hawkins).

College is normally pressure enough, but imagine having an entire community wanting, you may even say needing, her to succeed. That’s where Nina is at. Add to that the financial pressures it is placing on her father, local businessman Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who is willing to make any sacrifice. She’s homesick, she doesn’t feel like she belongs, she’s ready to call it quits!

There is also a dash of mystery surrounding an unclaimed winning lottery ticket purchased at the bodega run by Usnavi. That $96,000 can achieve one of the someone’s dreams. But who?

What is home? It is a big theme that’s explored here, especially the idea that it isn’t necessarily confined to a geographic location. It asks us to take stock of our own dreams. And the ways that we can assert out own dignity (more on that later).

At well over two hours, the story does tend to drag a bit. But fortunately we can count on another colorful music sequence around every corner of the block to provide a jolt of energy!

Miranda High Rise

Before there was Hamilton, there was In the Heights.

Miranda, now 41, set out to write it as a 19-year-old college student. He then revised it in 2002, partnering with playwright Quiara Alegria Hodges and went on to win a nice pile of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations. Heck, it was even nominated for a Pulitzer! Yet still, it took 15 years to reach the big screen. But here it is!

Miranda, who grew up in Washington Heights, said it was important to him to bring a big splashy film like this to the forefront that stars Latinos, a demographic not seen in mainstream films, and to not fall back on stereotypes, such as being the help, criminals or people with trauma-ridden lives.

In an interview with NBC news, he said, “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.”

And who better to rely on than director Jon M. Chu, who helmed Crazy Rich Asians?

More Than a Grain of Sand

Ahhh, Nina! Did I mention how much I feel for Nina? Plucked from her community and the comforts of home. Being tested in ways far beyond the classroom. This exchange illustrates her frustrations and Claudia, ever the Abuela for all, offers up a pearl of wisdom:

Nina:  I got to Stanford. The isolation, Abuela, the loneliness. I was like, what am I doing here? 
Abuela Claudia: When my mama came from Cuba, She felt like one tiny grain of sand from the beaches we lived behind.
Nina: What did she do?
Abuela Claudia: She brought a winter coat and a pair of velvet gloves. Her hands were cracked from the cleaning fluids, but the gloves hid that. We had to assert our dignity in small ways.  That's why these napkins are beautiful. That's why my mother's gloves were beautiful. Little details that tell the world, we are not invisible

What a beautiful picture!

It would be disingenuous to pretend I come from the same place of experiences and understandings as Latinos and other minority groups. That’s the real value of stories like these. Even still, let’s consider some ways that we might assert our dignity.

Asserting our Dignity in Small Ways

As Alegria Hudes tells NPR,

"That [asserting out dignity in small ways] line for me is evocative of my own childhood, of every tiny little lesson that Abuela would give me, that Titi Jenny would give me, that Tia Moncha, Tia Rosa. I think about how my abuela taught me how to cook rice and she giggled and laughed at me! Like, 'Oh, poor Qui Qui'' when I asked her, like, 'Okay, well, where's the measuring cup?' She's like, 'No... no, bendita, we put it in your hand.' These are the little things. And she took pride in telling me that. And that is part of our dignity, passing on our little bits of wisdom, you know, not in some grand scale, but just in eye contact and close contact from generation to generation."

Dignity is important to our well being. Many might simply define it as respect, but it is so much more, according to Psychology Today. Dignity is, “our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it. Respect on the other hand, is earned through one’s actions.”

That is part of our dignity, passing on our little bits of wisdom, you know, not in some grand scale, but just in eye contact and close contact from generation to generation.

– QUIARA ALEGRIA HUDES, PLAYWRIGHT

NO ONE has the power to take your dignity from you. Hold onto it. And pass it on.

Affirming Dignity in Others

Here are five ways to protect human dignity, äccording to the website Aleteia:

  • Respect. This is the principle of every person having value and treating them as such.
  • Good will, not ill will. Avoid any action that may bring harm to another and consider what it best for them.
  • Double Effect. So we’ve sought actions and intentions that promote positive effects on others? Good. Now look again, and consider what secondary effects may have come of it, and whether it may be out of proportion with the primary effect. Equal and opposite reaction, right? Seek the equal.
  • Integrity. Keeping a promise even if it takes extra effort. Not betraying the trust others have placed in us in the face of potential consequences. Doing the right thing by someone when it goes against our self interests. These are examples of integrity.
  • Justice.  The main idea of the principle of justice is “to treat people as we should, as corresponds to their equal dignity.”
  • Utility.  Remember the Golden Rule? Yeah, you do. Treat others how you would like to be treated! There is a reason why nearly every faith has adopted a version of that statement. It’s the basics of being a good human. Say it, so it doesn’t disappear!

.

When we affirm the dignity of one another, we are truly living into the … heights… of our powers. That’s when we are at our best. Matching one another, move for move. DANCE!

Where to Watch

As of this writing, In the Heights can be seen in theaters. It will also be showing on HBO Max until July 11.

What do you think? Did In the Heights alter your outlook in any way? What are some small things you have done to assert your dignity? Or affirm it in others?

Let me know in the comments below!

In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu

Screenwriter: Quiara Alegria Hudes

Music and lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Cast: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barerra, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV

Rated: PG-13 (language and suggestive references)

Running time: 143 minutes

Comments

  1. Heather @ Writer's Life for You

    I’ve been wanting to see In the Heights and love that you connected it with dignity and of course, the natural dancer in all of us. Your description of the characters and the pressures they face was great. I think this musical goes a long way to describing the issue minorities face and I think life may be the protagonist indeed.

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  2. Unwanted Life

    There is a real problem with housing the world over at the moment, unless you’re born into money or will inherit money, it’s almost impossible to buy your own home. Thus, you’re stuck renting, never knowing when you’re landlord will sell up. Because property is a good investment, those with money buy up as much of it as possible which just destroys communities. Globally, how hosting is done needs a massive overhaul.

    I’m sure this is a great film, but I’m really not a fan of musically. One of the reasons I can get annoyed with Disney films is due to the amount of singing. I’ll likely give this film a pass

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  3. Rosemarie

    Thank you for sharing your insightful movie review. I can’t wait to watch the movie. As a Hispanic/Irish woman, I think there needs to be a transition away from Hispanics cast as scary cartel members, maids, and unscrupulous individuals. I was appalled by the depiction of Hispanics in The Mosquito Coast! I hope to see more films like In The Heights coming to theaters soon.

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      Scott Harrison Rees

      I can imagine! Yes, hopefully this film is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it didn’t make as much opening weekend as hoped, even amidst a pandemic. But still I could see it gaining new life through work of mouth like what happened with The Greatest Showman. Thanks for reading!

  4. Evie

    Loved your review and the history behind the movie too. Such a nice touch. I love learning about directors, screenwriters and the people behind the actors too. Looking forward to this movie.

  5. Seriah Sargenton

    Thank you for this wonderful and insightful review of the film. I’m very lucky to have read the original playwright by Quiara Alegría Hudes back when I was attending school. I’m so happy that they made a film of it because I absolutely love it. I think this movie is the first step for broadening the roles and perceptions of people with Kenzie has been in community and the stories Hollywood will tell in the future about this community.

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