This October will mark the 60th anniversary of the worldwide release of the film West Side Story-—an American musical romantic drama set in Manhattan that took the world by storm with its dazzling musical numbers and a storyline never before seen on-screen. Considered to be one of the greatest musical films ever made, West Side Story quickly became a part of American history, with Hollywood imaging the Puerto Rican experience in the U.S. as an American one. However, it was the white-washing of the movie that has truly dated the film. Despite casting Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno as the rugged girlfriend Anita—a decision way ahead of its time—lead actress Natalie Wood, supporting actor George Chakiris, and even Rita herself had to cover themselves in pounds of brown makeup to appear Puerto Rican and Puerto Rican enough for the film. A racist decision we now would classify as wearing brownface.
Today, Latino/a or Latinx representation has been a constant journey and exploration in film in the last several decades. This year, the film adaptation of In The Heights, written and produced by Lin Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, Les Misérables), has been praised for its realism and showcasing of real brown faces seen on the streets of New York and its boroughs. A gigantic representational factor that was unfortunately not carried out by West Side Story all those years ago.
While this was cause for celebration and Latinx pride, In The Heights also begged a deeper question within the community: What does it mean to be Latino/a/x?
The In The Heights Controversy
While In The Heights was an all-around success in terms of musicality, engagement, beauty, and cinema, it was still under fire this year for its lack of inclusivity in depicting the Hispanic community of Washington Heights, New York City; that being Dominican, Puerto Rican, Chilean, etc. is simply limited to Whiteness and Brownness. The reality is, however, visibly Black Latino/a/x immigrants and individuals are a huge part of Latino culture. Furthermore, excluding Black people from leading roles and speaking roles is an erasure of Afro-Latino/a/x people that encourages an uneducated picture of what a Latino/a/x looks like.
When asked about the issue of colorism and lack of diversity on the set of In The Heights, lead Mexican-American actress Melissa Barrera responded by saying this:
In the audition process there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there; a lot of darker-skinned people…I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles…They [John M. Chu and Lin Manuel Miranda] wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like.
What does the “right” Latino/a/x person look like, though? And do Afro-Latino/a/x individuals simply serve their purpose as dancers and background characters within their own community? Is that their truth?
“A lead—that’s the breath through,” said Felice Leon, video producer for The Root. Leon’s response to Barrera’s comment not only answered the question of where exactly we should be seeing Afro-Latino/a/x representation but also highlighted how films like West Side Story failed when attempting to produce an authentic story. That what we should be inquiring is ‘how is this affecting darker-skinned, Afro-Latino/a/x people?’ and ‘why are they limited to dancers in the background?’.
What is the beauty of a culture if we don’t see the beauty of that culture?
Colorism is a pervasive problem akin to the racism that everyone around the world has seen, experienced, or is familiar with. It refers to the further color divide within melanated communities, in which the darker your skin is, the more discrimination and prejudice you face amongst your own ethnic/racial group. This stems from Anti-Black racism and white colonialism, where complexion and shade determine your standing in the intimate society you navigate in.
Unfortunately, many films and TV shows have used and continue to use colorism as a way of tokenizing people of certain minority racial groups as a means to be more palatable and digestible to a more white audience. In order to show the beauty of a culture, though, it is impossible not to show the various shades that come along with a nation’s history, making one’s heritage appear even more intricate and beautiful than ever before.
Was it still a good film?
Despite the film’s addicting musical numbers and unapologetic tone that came in a roller-coaster of genuine emotion, it is sad to know and see that such a hideous issue of colorism and racism has once again gotten in the way of finally tell a more true to life and beautiful story for all.
In The Heights was still a good film—but there is always room for improvement. While we don’t want to wait for another 60 years to see that slight change, it is okay to critique a film (as it is produced to be critiqued as well) to make it better and shed light on overlooked and important issues. Colorism isn’t a threat or an enemy to the film, but the conversation surrounding it provides a great equalizer for the future.
As We Continue…: West Side Story (2021)
A new film adaptation of West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg will be released this year in December, giving the famous musical story another chance to be told more accurately with a Latina lead as well as diverse representation. It is important to note that, while Spielberg is the one directing the film, hopefully, another conversation will emerge regarding those of the Latino/a/x community telling their own experiences in film. Having Afro-Latino/a/x individuals on-screen as actual characters and, one day, as leads normalizes Black presence to non-Latino/a/x audiences. That they shouldn’t be reduced to dancers but pushed to the forefront as real people.
Marian Haile is a contributing writer for the Pedestal Project, LLC. A literature graduate, she believes that storytelling and analyzing history can assist in developing an understanding of those around us and ourselves. You can follow her Instagram @marianhaile.