The film, which takes place in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, has been touted as a celebration of the Latinx community. Star Anthony Ramos recently equated it to "Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians," in how it is supposed to represent people and culture who have long been absent from major Hollywood films.
However, after its release, several film critics raised concerns regarding a lack of representation for the neighborhood's dark-skinned Afro-Latinx population in the film's major roles. Of the main cast, the only dark-skinned Black character is Benny, played by non-Latino actor Corey Hawkins. In the musical, Benny's relationship with Nina is a source of major contention with her father, who sees Benny as an outsider because he is a non-Latinx Black man. This plot is not present in the film.
A now-viral video interview by The Root's Felice Léon with In the Heights director Jon M. Chu and leads Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera sparked intense conversation online when Léon called out the colorism within the film.
"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 says. "What are your thoughts on the lack of Black Latinx people represented in your film?"
Chu, who encountered similar accusations of colorism with his 2018 hit, Crazy Rich Asians, tells Léon that it's "a fair conversation to have," but doesn’t fully have it. Instead, he says that the focus was on finding the "right" actors for the roles and highlights the diversity among the background dancers.
Grace, who is Afro-Latina and plays Nina, said that she didn't realize until they were already making the movie that she wasn't seeing people who looked like herself or her darker-skinned siblings onscreen. "I hope that this is cracking that glass ceiling. Because I do hope to see my brothers and sisters that are darker than me lead these movies," she added.
Barrera, the Mexican actress who plays Vanessa, reiterated Chu's statement that "they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent." She noted that there were "a lot" of dark-skinned actors and performers during the audition process, but they didn't make the cut.
"Because the cast ended up being us, and because Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like," she added.
On Monday, Miranda -- who produced and appears in the film and co-wrote the play the film is adapted from -- took to Twitter to reflect and apologize.
"I started writing In the Heights because I didn't feel seen," Miranda wrote. "And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us -- ALL of us -- to feel seen."
"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," he continued. "I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling 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," he added. "In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I'm truly sorry."
Miranda said he is "learning from the feedback" and thanked those making their disappointment heard for raising their concerns. He assured critics, "I'm listening."
"I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings," he concluded. "Thanks for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community."
Quiara Alegría Hudes, writer of the book that inspired the original musical and the film's screenplay, quoted Miranda's tweet, writing, "I joined Lin on this journey and share his apology, responsibility, and promise."