Rita Moreno enters the fray over alleged colorism in ‘In the Heights’
Rita Moreno became the latest high-profile Latina artist to weigh in on the “In the Heights” colorism controversy Tuesday, when she defended Lin-Manuel Miranda on “Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“Can we take a moment to discuss that criticism of Lin-Manuel? That truly distresses me,” Moreno stated during Colbert’s second post-pandemic show in front of a live studio audience.
Colbert educated the audience, explaining the film’s lack of Afro-Latino characters and the ensuing controversy. Moreno continued.
“It appears as though you can never do anything correctly,” she stated. “This is the man who brought Latino and Puerto Rican identity to America. I was incapable of doing so. I wish I could say I did, but I am unable to. Lin-Manuel has accomplished this entirely on his own, and I am overjoyed and proud that he produced my documentary.
“All I’m saying is, ‘Couldn’t you just wait a little while and leave it alone?’ ” According to Moreno. “There are many people who identify as ‘puertorriqueos,’ who are also from Guatemala, who are both dark and fair. Puerto Rico is a rainbow of hues. It would be so nice if they hadn’t thought of that and just left it alone for the time being. That is to say, they are attacking the wrong person.”
The film, which is based on the Tony-winning stage musical of the same name, chronicles three days in the life of a neighborhood and its residents. There are the unfolding love stories of bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), as well as between Benny (Corey Hawkins), who is Black but not Latino, and Nina (Leslie Grace), who went to Stanford but dropped out due to her fear of informing her family and community. The musical makes reference to racism, gentrification, and the difficulties faced by immigrants.
The issue of colorism came up during an interview conducted by journalist Felice León of The Root with director Jon M. Chu, Barrera, and Grace, who were asked about the lack of color diversity in leading roles.
“In the end, when we were casting, we sought out the best candidates for those roles,” Chu explained to León. “However, I understand your desire to have darker skinned cast members. I hope this encourages more people to tell more stories and to do so immediately… We made every effort on all fronts.”
“There were a lot of Afro-Latinos in the audition process, which was lengthy,” Barerra said. “A large number of people with darker skin. They were looking for the ideal candidates for each role, for the individual who embodied each character to the fullest extent.”
Miranda felt compelled to apologize, which he did Monday via Twitter.
“I began writing ‘In The Heights’ because I felt unheard,” the actor, singer, songwriter, rapper, director, producer, and playwright explained on Twitter. “And for the last two decades, all I desired was for us – for EVERYONE – to feel seen.”
He stated that those aspirations “fell short” when lighter-skinned people were cast in leading roles with story arcs and complex characters, while dark-skinned Latinos were relegated to background dancers — who came in a multicultural variety but were limited to choreography.
Miranda addressed the issue further on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” prior to Moreno’s taped appearance on Colbert.
“I am powerless to legislate how people feel,” he explained. “All I want is for this neighborhood to have a sense of belonging. And if there is a segment of it that does not feel seen — and they are expressing this — you must acknowledge and include it. And all I can do is learn from it and make a commitment to do better in the future.”
He emphasized the film’s “abundance of Afro-Latinidad” and stated that where it fell short was in the lack of dark-skinned Latino actors in leading roles. “And I completely understand and accept that, and…. I just have to do a better job on the next one.”
He mentioned reserving space for both.
“We put so much love and care into it and filmed on location, and I’m happy to take what we learned and apply it to the next one, while also reserving space to be proud of this thing that took up half my life,” Miranda explained. “I must be able to hold both of those positions, as they are both true. You are hearing from a community that feels marginalized and is in pain. AND we built this thing, and I’m proud of it, and we don’t get to build things like this very often. Thus, I must simply be able to contain it all.”
Quiara Alegra Hudes, a fellow screenwriter, agreed Wednesday, retweeting Miranda’s apology and adding, “I joined Lin on this journey and share his apology, responsibility, and promise.”