Watching “In the Heights”

My kids have some weird pipeline into YouTube that connects them to the world of stage musicals. I don’t mind, because it seems to permanently block the pipeline that would lead to idiotic fundamentalism, Neo-Nazi madness and all the other evils that the algorithm seems to hand out to sad, lonely white boys with gun fetishes. Anyway, my kids are strong for LGBTQ+ visibility and rights, and that seems to tie in well with stage musicals for whatever reason.

The point is, they were Lin Manuel Miranda fans long before Mrs Dim or myself could remember all three names, let alone the order they came in. I do remember getting the original cast recording of In The Heights from the library, but it meant little to me, having not watched the show it came from. This week we finally got a chance to watch the movie version on Crave, and yes, I know there were representation issues even then, with LMM having to apologise for some decisions made about some characters, but it certainly wasn’t a whitewash. ScarJo wasn’t even any of the trees in the background.

In publishing (which I spy on through Twitter association with Real Authors), there’s a lot of discussion about representation. People with marginalised voices or experiences have historically been told that their stories have to conform to the (white) expected audience, or they won’t sell. the proof of this is usually the lack of books by those kinds of authors. but that is obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy – We can’t take you on because your book won’t sell, and your books don’t sell because authors like you don’t get taken on.

So here’s “In The Heights”, a story about a group of immigrants (1st and second and third generation) in an area of New York that is slowly pushing them out. They’re worried about their community, their livelihoods, their futures, and in some cases, their chances of staying in the country. None of this, to be clear, meshes with any of my life experience. I don’t even like New York. (I went once. It was ok, but I’ve been to better cities.) This being the case, I should NOT be the target audience for this adaptation. But I felt for the characters. I could understand their anger at their treatment because of the colour of their skin, or the country of origin, even if it has never happened to me. I could understand the anger of the daughter whose father was desperate for her to go to an Ivy League College, for her to do so much better than he had, whether or not it was what SHE wanted. I could understand the man looking to revive his father’s business, even though it meant leaving the community where he’d grown up. These were not things I had experienced, but they were things I could understand. And you know what? I didn’t need an explanation, or dictionary, or even subtitles for most of it. Just empathy.

Someone talking about film once said “I’d rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for ten seconds”, but I think the mega-studio system has lowered the bar on both those timings. In the search for ever bigger hits, movies are being reduced to reach the lowest common denominator. Don’t make me think, don’t make me work, explain it all, lay it out, and don’t ask me to read subtitles. Watching “In The Heights”, or reading “Binti” or “Mexican Gothic” doesn’t require a study of other languages or cultures. It just needs an open mind, an empathy for the feelings of another human being. Our ceremonies, habits and customs might vary, but love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear. People are people, to paraphrase a Muppet Movie.

As a white Cis/het male, I have no problem with watching movies where the lead is female, of another race, of another sexuality. Why would I? Story is story. If it’s a love story, I’d like a happy ever after, whether it’s for him and her, for her and her, or for them. “In the Heights” made me laugh and cry because the stories were good, and so it didn’t matter that I don’t like New York, or that (despite my best efforts and fervent desire) I still can’t speak Spanish. But the important thing about it is how many people out there will see THEIR story on the screen. they’ll see people who look like them finally stepping out of the shadows of some other lead actor. Because of this, they’ll feel that what they do in life matters. They can tell their stories, or launch their business, or go to college, because they’re not just background extras in life, they are the stars of their own story.

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