ENTERTAINMENT

'In The Heights' Director Has Disappointing Response To 'Whitewashing' Criticisms

"We're not going to get everything right in a movie," Jon M. Chu, who faced similar backlash for "Crazy Rich Asians," told The Root.

After a yearlong delay due to the pandemic, “In the Heights” opened in theaters last week to near-universal praise from critics, many of whom hailed it as a cinematic celebration of Latinx culture.

The movie, based on the 2008 Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has nonetheless drawn a fair amount of online backlash for its glaring lack of Afro-Latinx representation. The cast features many light-skinned and white-passing actors, including Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace — and many see the film as a less-than-accurate depiction of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where it takes place. The film’s only Black principal character, Benny, is played by Corey Hawkins, a non-Latino actor. 

Speaking to The Root’s Felice León in a video interview last week, director Jon M. Chu touched on accusations that the film had been “whitewashed.” 

“I think that was something we talked about and I needed to be educated about, of course,” Chu said. “In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people that were best for those roles.” 

“I think that’s a really good conversation to have, something that we should all be talking about,” he added. 

Catch the interview below: 

Later in the interview, actor Melissa Barrera noted that “a lot of darker-skinned people” had turned up at auditions ― an observation that made the film’s lack of diversity even more eyebrow-raising. 

León pushed back when Barrera and Chu pointed to the presence of darker-skinned dancers in the film’s ensemble scenes. 

“Those are roles that, historically, we’ve been able to fill,” said the journalist, who is a Black New Yorker of Cuban descent. “We’ve been able to be the dancers, we’ve been able to be in the hair salons and, you know, this and that. But, like, a lead? That’s the breakthrough.” 

Chu acquiesced somewhat, saying he hoped “In the Heights” would encourage “more people to tell more stories and get out there and do it right then.” 

“We’re not going to get everything right in a movie,” he said. 

After footage of the interview appeared online, many on social media expressed their disappointment with Chu’s comments.  

It isn’t the first time that Chu’s work has been accused of colorism. “Crazy Rich Asians,” a 2018 film he directed, was seen as a milestone for Asian representation, but it also proved to be polarizing for its emphasis on characters of East Asian descent. 

Miranda did not speak to The Root, but he addressed concerns that “In the Heights” highlighted only light-skinned Latinx people in an interview with Vox published last week. 

“It’s unfair to put any kind of undue burden of representation on ‘In the Heights,’” he said. “There are so many millions of stories — there’s a song in ‘Heights’ called ‘Hundreds of Stories,’ but there’s millions of stories — from the cultural specificities of the Puerto Rican American experience, the Dominican American experience, the Cuban American experience, and we couldn’t get our arms around all of that.”