Lately, I’ve grown increasingly tired of something that seems utterly inescapable. It’s been heading in this direction for quite some time, but I’m exhausted by the constant barrage of film criticism that evaluates art in solely political terms. Both “sides” do this, and it amuses me to see that they often accuse the same film(s) of being simultaneously too woke and regressive or racist. Of course, we can all see the same movie, read the same book, etc., and come to different conclusions. But it’s strange to see such a wide array of accusations flung at one movie that seems pretty innocuous, namely In the Heights. I try to enjoy things on their own terms, even if I have issues with them, and ignore internet whining to an extent. But the truth is that constant negativity is just exhausting after a certain point, and often I’m not sure what the end goal is, if there is one. What really brought this to a head for me was the most recent episode of Musicalsplaining, Lindsay Ellis’ and Kaveh Taherian’s podcast on musicals, this time centering on Moana.
I’ve been a big Lindsay Ellis fan for years and even bought her book, Axiom’s End, just to support her. In general, her media criticism is spot-on, and she’s very observant and clever. She recently endured a harassment campaign and cancellation over a completely harmless tweet comparing Raya and the Last Dragon to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Numerous media outlets and film critics (including your obedient servant) noticed that the two looked similar when Raya’s first trailer was released. Personally, I fail to see why one person should be targeted for making an observation that was obvious to most people immediately. And I saw the argument that it was because Ellis is white, while the characters of both Avatar and Raya exist in a sort of fantasy Asiatic melting pot. This is really dumb for a couple of reasons. Firstly, both Avatar and Raya were created by teams of mostly white writers and directors. A big-budget movie made by one of the most powerful film studios in the world shouldn’t be protected from criticism just because of Asian representation. This is especially true when said representation only comes in the form of its characters and not the creatives behind them. The accuracy/quality/respectfulness of the portrayal of the cultures in question has been criticized in its own right. All this to say that harassment is never okay, everyone has feelings (even famous people), and that it’s not racist to compare similar things, especially if the art in question is an interpretation of certain cultures by people who don’t come from them. I think it should be allowed and even encouraged for people to tell stories from outside their own backgrounds and comfort zones, but it’s not a shield from critique.
What does this have to do with In the Heights? While the far-right claims this movie is woke, race-baiting liberal trash, the opposite aisle charges it with racism and colorism. I’ve never been to Washington Heights and have no frame of reference for its ethnic makeup, so I’m going to leave that one alone. But, just like I think it’s ridiculous to cancel someone for making an observation, I also find the witch hunt (on both sides) out for Lin-Manuel Miranda disturbing. When you make something, are you really socially obligated to cater to all sides and parties? In the Heights follows a neighborhood of Latino immigrants and their struggles, some of which involve poverty and difficulty getting into higher education. The original story was based partly on Miranda’s own experiences living in New York and the people he knew there. I think this was never going to appeal to the MAGA crowd, but I must admit I find myself baffled by the response of the political left. As I said, I don’t know much about colorism in the community Miranda belongs to, and I don’t intend to offend anyone. However, I find it interesting that Leslie Grace (Nina) and Dascha Polanco (Cuca) identify as Afro-Latina, the group for which people are demanding representation. And Nina is arguably the film’s second lead after Usnavi; she certainly has more of a story arc than Benny or Vanessa, at least in the movie.
I also wonder if the demographics of Washington Heights have changed in the nearly two decades since the original play was conceived. For that matter, how much say did Miranda really have in the movie’s casting? As someone who doesn’t know too much about Latino culture and heritage, In the Heights made me want to learn more, which seems like a good thing. I think that’s one of many admirable aspects of Miranda’s work as a whole, with which Lindsay Ellis and many others have taken umbrage of late. Regardless of wealth and fame, it’s wrong to go after Miranda just like it was wrong to harass Lindsay. I don’t understand why people think it’s cool to say whatever you want about whoever you want on the internet, including people who have themselves been targeted, like Lindsay Ellis. Specifically, Ellis and her guest host, Princess Weekes, remarked that Miranda’s work presents Latino culture from a privileged standpoint and that his mainstream work (except for Moana) is about him. I wonder how people who don’t belong to a group decide that the experiences of someone who does are privileged. How does a white woman know more about the Latino community in this neighborhood than someone who is part of it?
Furthermore, what happened to “write what you know”? People say that all the time. Creatives like Nora Ephron and Jordan Peele have famously written what they knew personally. Who knows how many countless artists, directors, writers, etc., have based their work on their own lives or people they knew? I fail to understand why this would ever be an issue. Miranda based his version of Alexander Hamilton on a mixture of the real man and the relentless work ethic of Miranda’s own father, Luis. I guess some would call that self-involved or “privileged,” but I think it’s brilliant.
Personally, I’m just over the overly-politicized media analysis we’re force-fed every day. In the Heights is visually breathtaking and has a fantastic soundtrack, but that’s all being drowned out by political discourse. It’s also disgusting how we as a society go after someone for these perceived political statements and use that as an excuse to hound someone. I intended to talk about Miranda’s body of work and some of the themes he returns to time and again, but this got too long. I will still be doing that later this week or next week. In the meantime, I just wish we could be kind and remember that art is entertainment first and foremost.