Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Rita Moreno is a national treasure and legend of stage and screen who has been delighting and inspiring audiences for over 70 of her 89 years on Earth. She has earned her accolades and deserves her flowers. That said, even our faves can occasionally disappoint, and many were rightly disappointed after Moreno offered unsolicited commentary on the In the Heights colorism controversy during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Tuesday night.
Moreno appeared on the show to discuss her storied career and already acclaimed new documentary, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this week. Nevertheless, Moreno also took the opportunity to broadcast her feelings about the recent conversation sparked by The Root’s producer and host Felice Léon with regard to the conspicuous absence of darker-skinned Afro-Latinx leads in the film adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda-created Tony-winning musical—Miranda also being a co-producer of Moreno’s documentary.
The comments came as something of a non-sequitur; in fact, Moreno was responding to a question Colbert asked about being a pioneer in her field when she paused to ask: “Can we talk for a second about that criticism about Lin-Manuel? That really upset me.”
(To be clear, Léon’s initial question about the lack of representation was directed at In the Heights director Jon M. Chu and several cast members—in a now-viral interview in which Miranda was never once verbally mentioned—but we’re gonna let you finish, Ms. Moreno.)
“You can never do right, it seems,” she continued. “This is the man who literally has brought Latino-ness and Puerto Rican-ness to America. I couldn’t do it. I mean, I would love to say I did, but I couldn’t. Lin-Manuel has done that, really single-handedly and I was thrilled to pieces and I’m proud that he produced my documentary.”
As she should be. But what does that have to do with dismissing the concerns of darker-skinned Latinx-Americans who’d also hoped to see themselves represented onscreen after generations of erasure (see: West Side Story, which also happened to be Moreno’s breakthrough film, garnering her an Academy Award)—especially in a film set in the heavily Afro-Latinx New York enclave of Washington Heights? Colbert attempted to throw the entertainer a lifeline, asking if her frustration wasn’t with the critique itself, but with it being directed toward Miranda. (This is where we remind you again that neither Léon nor anyone she interviewed mentioned Miranda.)
Moreno’s response was unfortunately even more dismissive:
“Well, I’m simply saying, can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone?” she asked, adding: “There’s a lot of people who are Puerto Rican who are also from Guatemala who are dark and who are also fair. We are all colors in Puerto Rico. This is how it is. It would be so nice if they hadn’t come up with that and left it alone, just for now. They’re really attacking the wrong person.”
A visibly uncomfortable Colbert quickly pivoted the conversation to how much his mother admires the EGOT. But coincidentally (or perhaps not so), Manuel made his own talk show appearance on Tuesday, appearing on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show following a public statement made on Monday in which he acknowledged the criticism and promised he was “listening.”
“I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback,” he wrote. “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.”
Speaking on the issue with Noah, Miranda was equally forthcoming on the issue, saying (h/t The Hollywood Reporter): “Your job as an artist is to write what’s missing,” and noting that ironically, he began his career in musical theater with the goal of increasing representation. “It was like, how many of us can I get on the board. That’s the goal.” He further added that he’d wanted to get away from the mid-century narrative of urban Latinos “with knives in their hands, which was incredibly overrepresented in musical theater, weirdly.” (Again, see: West Side Story.)
When asked by Noah how he’s processing the criticism leveled at his latest effort, Miranda responded: “I totally understand that, and I receive it, and I just have to do better on the next one.”
“I can’t legislate how people feel,” Miranda also acknowledged. “All I want is for this neighborhood to feel seen. And if there’s a segment of it that doesn’t feel seen and they’re saying that, you have to acknowledge that and let it in. All I can do is learn from it and promise to do better.”
In the meantime, he’s also proud that In the Heights made it to the big screen, especially as it further marks his own transition out of musical theater. “We don’t get to make things like this much, so I have to be able to hold it all,” he added.
Speaking of stage-to-screen transitions, yet another adaptation of West Side Story will soon make its way to the big screen, helmed by Stephen Spielberg with Moreno in both a small supporting role and as an executive producer. Interestingly, the role she made famous, “Anita,” will be portrayed by Prom’s Ariana DuBose, who is an unambiguous woman of color—specifically, one of Afro-Latinx descent. And yet, as Moreno herself admits in her new documentary (h/t Entertainment Tonight), she struggled with being characterized as a darker-skinned Latina early in her career.
“I spoke perfect English. And it absolutely rankled that I had to do accents,” she shares. And it rankled that I always had to do the dark makeup because they only, particularly in those times, but this still exists, they only saw Hispanic young women as a certain color. So as a result of that, they always had to put body makeup on me because the rest of me didn’t match the dark skin up here. It was bizarre. I accepted it because that’s how it was then.”
“I really wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor,” she adds. “Little did I know there wasn’t a chance in hell of something like that happening.”