Jimmy Smits arrives at a special screening of “In the Heights” during the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Jimmy Smits arrives at a special screening of “In the Heights” during the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Friday, June 4, 2021. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

‘In the Heights’ lifts hopes for a Latino film breakthrough

Hype for summer blockbuster has brought great expectation for Latinos in the United States

Color. Dance. Music. Joy. An all Latino cast!

The hype for “In the Heights” has brought great expectation for Latinos in the United States, a group that’s been historically underrepresented and widely typecast in films. With upcoming titles like “Cinderella” with Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” with Mexican star Salma Hayek and Steven Spielberg’s revival of “West Side Story,” it’s just the beginning of a string of productions that place Latinos front and center.

“In the Heights,” which opens Friday, is director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the Tony-award winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes about the hopes and struggles of residents of New York City’s Washington Heights. Many hope it marks a new beginning on the big screen for the largest minority group in the country — one that mirrors shifts that have already happened for Black and Asian actors and creators.

“You have this beautiful collage of people in the community,” says Jimmy Smits, who plays Kevin Rosario, a single father and the owner a taxi cab service, in “In the Heights.” “It’s the immigrant experience that’s been part of the fabric of this country since it started. And it’s positive. So we need that right now after the pandemic.”

John Leguizamo agrees.

“I think that ‘In the Heights’ is gonna be THE project that changes the whole thing finally,” says the Colombian-American actor and playwright, who won a special Tony Award in 2018 for his commitment to bringing diverse stories and audiences to Broadway through his one-man shows like “Freak, and “Latin History for Morons.”

Leguizamo says he’s been pitching stories to Hollywood for 30-plus years.

“I started to believe that maybe I don’t know how to write, maybe I just don’t know how to pitch, cause all my stories were rejected,” he says. “And then I started to realize, ‘Oh my God, it’s because it was Latin content!’ They didn’t know what to do with it.

“They weren’t rejecting my ability, there were rejecting my culture.”

The Census Bureau estimates almost 60 million Hispanics lived in the United States as of 2018. And many are devoted filmgoers: Latinos have consistently led the box office, reaching 29% of tickets sold, according to the latest Motion Picture Association report on theatergoers.

Yet they only represent 4.5% of all speaking or named characters and a mere 3% of lead or co-lead actors, a 2019 study of 1,200 popular movies from 2007 to 2018 by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found.

Awards recognition, too, has been elusive. This year’s Oscars featured a diverse slate of nominees, but no Latino performers.

Since Rita Moreno became the first Latina to win best supporting actress award in 1962 as Anita in “West Side Story” only one other Latino has won: Puerto Rican Benicio del Toro for his supporting role 2000’s “Traffic.” Before them, Puerto Rican José Ferrer became the first Latino actor to receive an Academy Award for his leading role in “Cyrano de Bergerac” in 1951, and Mexican-born Anthony Quinn got two supporting actor statues for “Viva Zapata!” (1953) and “Lust for Life” (1957).

No Latina has won best actress at the Oscars, with Hayek one of the few who have even been considered.

Moreno, an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner whose career spans seven decades, says she doesn’t expect to live to see Latinos achieve broad success in Hollywood.

“My age forbids it. But I sure as hell hope something happens,” Moreno says “I can’t believe we’re still struggling the way we are.”

“I don’t know what the hell is wrong. I don’t know what is not working right,” Moreno says. “The Black community has done incredibly, and I have nothing but the deepest admiration for the Black professional community. They’ve done it. And I think we can take some lessons from them. But where is our ‘Moonlight’? Why are we not advancing?”

Nevertheless, Leguizamo says he’s seen an important change during the COVID-19 pandemic and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The studios woke up,” says Leguizamo, who is now in talks to direct a few projects, including one he’s written. “I think everybody is making moves to change into being inclusive. I see it from small producers, directors in their offices, in their casting. I see it at Viacom. I see it at Univision. I see it at Netflix. I see it everywhere!”

Audiences will too, starting this summer with releases like Everardo Gout’s “The Forever Purge” with Ana de la Reguera (both Mexican); M. Night Shyamalan’s “OLD,” with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” with del Toro.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” set for December 10, includes a Latino cast this time. Many “Puerto Ricans” in the original were white actors in brown makeup and, although widely successful, the 1961 movie was also criticized for stereotypical portrayals of Latinos.

Anthony Ramos, who leads “In the Heights” as Usnavi, the character originally played by Miranda on the stage, says that “now is an incredible, beautiful moment where we can capitalize on Hollywood being receptive to what is naturally happening in the streets.”

As for Miranda, who became a superstar with the Broadway hit “Hamilton” and since then has been working also on TV and film, the “time has caught up to ‘In the Heights’” and he hopes people of color will support it.

“We’re part of a larger series of voices,” Miranda says. “I remember how important it was for me to go support ‘Black Panther’ opening weekend, to go and support ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ opening weekend, to vote with my wallet, to go and support ‘Minari’ opening weekend. If you want newer and richer stories beyond the ones you’ve heard, you vote with your wallet.”

—Sigal Ratner-arias, The Associated Press

RELATED: The blockbuster movie is making a comeback this summer

CultureMovies & TV

Just Posted

(Submitted Photo)
Skeena Voices| Dance, discipline and determination

When Braya Kluss is not dancing, she is a regular 16-year-old teenager… Continue reading

Karl Meyer was an active member of the Thornhill Volunteer Fire Department. (Terrace Professional Firefighters/ Facebook)
VIDEO: First responders parade through town in honour of fallen Thornhill firefighter

Thornhill Volunteer Fire Department’s Karl Meyer was found deceased during June 3 flooding

Suspected methamphetamine and scale seized by police. (Terrace RCMP photo)
Terrace RCMP seize guns, ammo, suspected narcotics

Man released after court appearance

Caledonia Secondary School is the recipient of a $50,000 grant to replace its aging science equipment. (File photo)
Cal snags major grant to modernize science equipment

The $50,000 comes from a pharmaceutical company

Unemployment rate drops in northwestern B.C.

Large improvement since Spring 2020

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) is scored on by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez, not pictured, during the second period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Monday, June 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Habs fall 4-1 to Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of NHL semifinal series

Match was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, assistant deputy speaker at the B.C. legislature, presides over committee discussions. The legislature is completing its delayed spring session this week, with most MLAs participating by video conference. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 infections dip below 100 over weekend

Only 68 new cases recorded Monday, four additional deaths

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes in wake of provincial reopening announcement

Website back up now, recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. watching U.K.’s COVID struggles but don’t think province will see similar pitfalls

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during an appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Appeal Court rejects stay for Alberta couple facing third trial in son’s death

Pair accused in their earlier trials of not seeking medical attention for their son sooner

Highway notices like this come down effective June 14. Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and commercial operation have hit local businesses in every corner of B.C. (B.C. government)
Province-wide travel back on in B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan

Gathering changes include up to 50 people for outdoor events

Most Read