Darker Shades of Pale

Maybe a decade ago, a guy with a significant following on the twitters complained that there was nobody in the Harry Potter series who “looked like him.” I replied, “So write some books as good as J.K. Rowling and make the characters look like you.”* Lin-Manuel Miranda did just that in his love letter to his neighborhood, Washington Heights.

It was the first movie I’ve seen in a theater in more than a year, and I thought it was great. I know Washington Heights very well, having spent a lot of time up there with clients. The scenery was the real deal, even if they managed to not include a bar, a money-exchange or the Local Motion cab driven by undercover detectives from the 34 Precinct that everybody knew were cops. Where were the guys selling dime bags on the corner? Where were the car stops to  illegally search for clavos? Where were the kids smoking weed? Where was the bodega cat? But then, this was Miranda’s love story. isn’t he allowed to clean the streets up a bit?

Apparently not, because even a love story in which every character is amazingly talented must still pass muster under the social justice microscope.

But the film also drew criticism online for the filmmakers’ choice to cast light-skinned Latino actors in leading roles, despite a prevalence of dark-skinned Latinos in the neighborhood where the movie was filmed.

Miranda, who was on the movie’s creative team, said in his statement that he was listening to the feedback online, including the expressions of hurt and frustration over colorism and “feeling still unseen” in the movie.

Colorism? The grievance is that there are lighter and darker skinned Hispanics, and they didn’t include enough of the latter in the lead actors. It may have been black and brown, but too close to white to survive scrutiny. So naturally, Miranda apologized.

The grievance wasn’t that the music was mostly rap and not salsa or merengue, as any self-respecting Dominican knows dominates on 168th Street. No one complained about the dancing or that the female actresses were a bit thinner than what most Hispanic men prefer, and what’s normally found there. And where were the nicknames, Viejito, Flaco, Gordo and, of course, El Negrito?

In a recent interview, the film’s writer, Quiara Alegría Hudes, spoke about the decision to make Nina an Afro-Latina character in the film version. “I wanted to consciously make Nina Afro-Latina in this version of ‘In the Heights.’ Since we opened the show on Broadway, this national conversation has happened around microaggressions and really interesting stuff that I feel like would be applicable to Nina’s situation.”

This character was the smart one who went off to Stanford, only to be reminded how far she was from home. It never dawned on me that she was Afro-Latina until the Times told me. It never dawned on me to wonder about it, rather than enjoy her singing, dancing and acting.

Corey Hawkins, who plays Nina’s love interest and an employee of her father’s cab service, is Black but not Latino (some also criticized the filmmakers for removing a plot point, which had existed in the musical, in which Hawkins’s character says Nina’s father doesn’t think he’s good enough for her).

This will come as a surprise to those of you who have never gone above 86th Street, but for the most part, blacks and Hispanics do not get along well. If possible, never put blacks on your jury if the defendant is Dominican. It will not end well.

But the most harsh criticism fell on Miranda for the movie being too pale.

What quota system should they have used to dictate whether the actors’ skin met the approved color chart?

Felice León, a video producer with the Root, addressed the issue in a recent interview with the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, and some of the film’s lead actors, saying, “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.”

León acknowledged that there were a number of Black background dancers and Black women in the scenes located in the hair salon, a sort of social hub for the women of the neighborhood, but that Black performers in leading roles were lacking.

“We want to see Afro-Panamanians, Black Cubans, Black Dominicans,” she said. “That’s what we want to see, and that’s what we were yearning for.”

Of course, nothing stops León from writing her own story and casting it with any damn person that meets her skin color demands. Except maybe talent.

Chu said that it was a subject that the filmmakers had discussed but that “in the end, when we were looking at the cast, we tried to get the people who were best for those roles.”

And that’s how films work, how filmmakers work, casting the roles with whoever they determine to be the best choices, the right choices, for their roles rather than actors with the correct skin tone. Mind you, it wasn’t that they cast Natalie Wood to play Maria.

Lin-Manuel Miranda accomplished something in Hamilton that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. He made George Washington black, and we still loved it and believed it, breaking a barrier that no one would have imagined could be broken. And still the grievance chorus beat him for it, as it dawned on them that his play glorified slave owners and ignored the plight of their slaves, even if they were our founding fathers.

Miranda is a genius. His accomplishments are astounding, and his talent is undeniable. And yet here he is, apologizing, as if there is anything that won’t, somehow, some way, fail to meet the demands of those who will never bring anyone the joy he has. He owes no one an apology, and we owe him our gratitude for allowing us to share in his love story.

*Aside: Can anyone write anything that includes a character that “looks like” one of everybody? This is not a game that can be won, and the best way to win Calvinball is never to play.

8 thoughts on “Darker Shades of Pale

  1. Pedantic Grammar Police

    “the best way to win Calvinball is never to play.”

    Obviously you’ve never played Calvinball.

    1. PseudonymousKid

      Yes, Pops is misrepresenting a part of my youth here. The score is oogy to boogy and the game is supposed to be enjoyable. None of this is fun. There’s too much gore, and we’re all losing. This might be bloodsport with rules made up on the fly, but it’s no Calvinball.

  2. B. McLeod

    As Rummy might say, we gotta cover not only the seen seens, but the unseen seens and the seen unseens, and even so, we can still expect complaints from the unseen unseens and insufficiently seen seens.

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