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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2021 comeback: A review of his “new” movie In the Heights.

19/07/2021

About the author

Wiebke Aepkers is a second-year IBCoM student, currently living in Rotterdam. She used to be the Marketing manager of last year’s Arts & Culture Committee. In her free time, she likes to read classic literature, watch K-Dramas, and order Garlic Twisters from Dominos. Is a Master of procrastination, of starting heated political debates when drunk, and of finding hidden gems on Netflix. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2021 comeback: A review of his “new” movie In the Heights.

For the first time since the pandemic started over one and a half years ago, I was able to go to the cinema. When I sat down in my seat, I suddenly felt very aware of the fact of how weird it is that I would voluntarily sit in silence with a bunch of strangers in a room staring at a screen in unison. Something to get used to again, I guess.

The movie I decided to assign the place of “first-ever-post-pandemic-cinema-screening” was none less than the musical In the Heights, written, directed, and even starred in by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the legendary Hamilton musical that has created unprecedented success in the Broadway musical scene. 

What some people might not know, In the Heights has actually been around for quite a while. The very first version of the musical was performed in 1999 and made it to Broadway 6 years later. In the Broadway performance it is Lin-Manuel Miranda himself who plays the main character Usnavi, while in the 2021 movie, he leaves the role to his Hamilton Co-Star Anthony Ramos. 

The story of In the Heights follows young Unavi de la Vega who lives in the largely Dominican neighborhood Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, to which his parents had immigrated from the Dominican Republic in the hopes of making a better future for their children. While his parents have passed, 20-something-year-old Usnavi is making due by running a small bodega together with his cousin Sonny. However, Usnavi’s dream is to someday move back to the Dominican Republic in order open up his father’s old bar on the beach.

Besides Usnavi, we get to follow Nina, a smart young woman, who is celebrated by her district’s community for being the first one to “make it out of Washington Heights” and into Stanford University on a scholarship. However, in the summer break Nina returns to Washington heights with the realization that there is no place and more importantly, no community for her at her new university. This leads to a clash between her personal dream and the dream that her father wants for her. 

Lastly, we have Vanessa’s storyline. She is a young woman working at the local nail and hair salon of Washington Heights. She has dreams of becoming a fashion designer but, as we get to find out with time, her area code keeps her from getting accepted to any of the programs and schools that she is interested in. In trying to move to a different distinct to escape the discrimination based on her home, she gets confronted with all the obstacles that the system has placed in her way to keep her from “getting out”. 

The musical explores many different themes, most prevalent probably that of the true meaning of “home” and the different hopes and aspirations immigrant children and their parents share (or not share). Musically, as well as visually, the movie is truly phenomenal. If you are familiar with the musical Hamilton, you will spot some classic Lin-Manuel Miranda-style in the beats and especially the melodies. It combines traditional Latin music with hip-hop and the typical sounds genre of a musical. The lyrics are also incredible, and in my opinion, nothing short of genius. 

While the storyline, especially the romantic interests, could be considered a bit cheesy and maybe not the most original work ever, it was the character's ethnicities and the struggles that these ethnicities placed on them as members of the American society that made this musical’s story so important and different from others.

As I was walking out of the cinema, I remember thinking to myself, that I need everyone to watch this movie. Meaning not necessarily exactly that, but more so that we need much more representation of these kinds of storylines. We’ve had decades and decades of having the same characters and stories displayed on the screen of mainstream media. It is about time that we realize that there are more stories out there that need to be told. And in a world that seems to be increasingly polarized through social media echo chambers, seeing and understanding other’s struggles by following their stories through a movie, a song, a book, or any other kind of media, is probably a lot more important than we might give it credit for. Not to say that representation itself would solve any of the many issues that we have as a society. However, there is definitely a chance of facilitating more awareness about issues that through our unique positionalities in society, we might not even be aware of. And while awareness itself can still not resolve much, it can definitely be a means to an end of more understanding and empathy for each other and each other’s stories that perhaps can lead to taking actions in the fight towards a more inclusive and accepting society.

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