As In the Heights faces colourism allegations, Hollywood's history of dealing with 'representation', explained

·4-min read

The film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway musical In the Heights has been facing allegations of colourism since the lead cast is made up mostly of light-skinned Latinx persons, while there seems to be an erasure of the Black Latinx community.

This has led to discussion about the prejudice against darker skinned African Americans and positive bias toward lighter-skinned persons. Miranda, in response, wrote on Twitter: "I can hear the hurt and frustration over colourism, 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. €¦ I'm learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I'm listening."

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In response to the controversy, director Jon M Chu, who also faced backlash about colourism for his 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians, said in an interview, "I think that was something we talked about and I needed to be educated about, of course. In the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people that were best for those roles. I hear you on trying to fill those cast members with darker skin. I think that's a really good conversation to have and something we should all be talking about." He also pointed to the Afro-Latinx members cast as background dancers and extras.

Colourism is racism

Even as Hollywood is focussing on diverse representation, racist casting continues as light-skinned actors are chosen more frequently than darker-skinned ones. For instance, one 2019 study found that only one in five, or 19 percent of black leading ladies have dark skin tone. This lack of adequate representation means audiences aren't challenged to see things differently and upholds a lens of white privilege.

As critic Rebecca Carroll explains: "Here's where the damage hits the hardest. For the folks who may not even notice the erasure €" white audiences €" their wilful ignorance is not merely validated but cemented. For the people who see the Black background dancers as sufficient representation and/or progress, that remains progress. And for those of us who find the erasure absolutely glaring, we have to start all over again with why it matters."

The 'burden of representation'

Films like In the Heights, Crazy Rich Asians, and The Joy Luck Club €" a 1993 American film about the relationships between Chinese-American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers €" which foreground a community on the American screen for the first time, face the challenge of accurately portraying all the ethnicities, skin tones, and experiences that make up any minority population. This happens when very few such films are made in the first place, putting pressure on them to be as vastly representative as possible. "We are taught that there's only a couple of crumbs left for us, and so now we're fighting against each other to grab those crumbs," said Franceli Chapman.

With few stories representing such experiences, there comes the burden of representation that every character of In the Heights carries i.e., for any marginalised group, there is greater pressure on the individual to represent the whole. This means that with every portrayal, there's the risk that the character will add to the stereotypes about the community.

As this blog post explains, "This means that the burden of the individual to represent his or her identity group in real life and/or in art or media is significantly increased because their actions are far more likely to be seen as representative of the whole group."

While the film fails to accurately represent the Afro-Latino community, and focusses on the stories of lighter-skinned Latinx characters €" and discussion about such exclusion is important to have €" it's still worth watching, since it portrays a large part of the Latinx experience. As one viewer wrote, "I loved In the Heights and saw myself reflected in the stories about having ambitious goals, insecurities about navigating elite institutions, and remembering our families' pasts with an eye towards our future."

Also See: Tribeca Film Festival 2021 opens with Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and gives New York a much-needed revitalisation, post-pandemic

In the Heights underperforms at US box office in opening weekend; A Quiet Place II nabs top spot with $11.7 mn

Rita Moreno retracts her defence against In the Heights colourism debate: 'Incredibly disappointed with myself'

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