With great power comes great responsibility. As arguably one of the most powerful creatives in contemporary musical theater, fans and followers of the genre have been waiting for Lin-Manuel Miranda to weigh in after The Root’s Producer Felice Léon called out the colorism in his latest stage-to-screen adaptation in a now-viral video interview with In the Heights director Jon M. Chu and female leads Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera.
“As a Black woman of Cuban descent specifically from New York City, it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the fact that most of your principal actors were light-skinned or white-passing Latinx people,” Léon pointedly asked. Despite having faced similar criticism in his previous hit, 2018's Crazy Rich Asians, Chu admitted that he’d needed to be educated on the issue when directing this film, pointing out the diversity of the many background dancers as a mea culpa of sorts. “But I hear you on trying to fill those [roles] with darker skin,” he conceded, adding, “I think that’s a really good conversation to have.”
The conversation subsequently exploded online, with some commenters defending the film’s casting as “the best actors for those roles”—a position echoed by Barrera, who portrayed romantic lead “Vanessa.” Others were thrilled for the opportunity to call out the colorism in the cast, particularly given the and long and strong Afro-Latinx presence in the beloved New York enclave. (Of note: Grace, who portrayed “Nina,” identifies as Afro-Latinx; much of the stage production’s anti-racism dialogue, which centered around that character’s interracial relationship with the only non-Latinx Black man in the cast was accordingly also trimmed down for the film.)
But what of In the Heights’ creator, who also played a role in its film adaptation? While he’d initially declined to be interviewed by The Root’s prior to the film’s premiere last week, after the resulting fallout, Manuel addressed the criticism on Monday, issuing an apologetic statement via Twitter which read, in part:
I’m seeing the discussion around Afro-Latino representation in our film this weekend and it is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it, particularly among the leading roles.
I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback.
I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.
In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short.
I’m truly sorry.
I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening.
Manuel further promised to “do better” in his future projects to fully represent and honor the “diverse and vibrant” Latinx community.
As for Léon, who has rightly been credited with sparking this very necessary conversation, in response to Manuel’s apology, she simply stated: “For centuries darker-skinned Afro-Latinx people have been erased from Latinidad, but we will be forgotten no more. We are tired of being maids and background dancers and will continue to push back until we are seen and heard. Indeed, Lin Manuel Miranda ‘fell short.’”
Correction: Tuesday, 6/15/21 at 2:15 p.m., ET: In an earlier version of this article a second mention of Leslie Grace misidentified her as Leslie Campos; the article has since been corrected.