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Flicks With Nicki – ‘In the Heights’

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Flicks With Nicki – ‘In the Heights’

Nicki Salcedo. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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We’ve all had little dreams about life, love, and happiness. Some of these dreams are our own. Other dreams are handed down to us from our ancestors. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” is a musical about striving for what we want. Americans dream big, but for some of us, it’s the little dreams that matter.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) has el sueñito, or a little dream. He wants to go back to the Dominican Republic and the best days of his life, but he’s stuck in Washington Heights. New York promised to be the land of opportunity. It might have been for his father, only now his father is gone. Usnavi runs the bodega on the corner that supplies the neighborhood with café con leche, cold drinks, and other staples. Though he loves his community, running the bodega isn’t enough.

The neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) moved to the U.S. from Cuba. Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) manages the taxi company. He moved to New York from Puerto Rico, and his daughter Nina is the result of his hopes and dreams.

Carla is one of the stylists in the salon. She sings, “My mom is Dominican-Cuban, my dad is from Chile and Puerto Rico. Which means I’m Chile-domini-curican, but I always say I’m from Queens!”

Vanessa works with Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) in a salon that is as central to the neighborhood as Usnavi’s bodega. Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is Usnavi’s helpful and playful younger cousin. He might have the biggest dream of all. Washington Heights is both home and a dream.

The story centers around two romances. Usnavi loves Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). While he plots his return to the Dominican Republic, Vanessa dreams of moving downtown and pursuing a career in fashion. Nina (Leslie Grace) is one of Usnavi’s closest friends. She’s home from a disappointing year at Stanford and doesn’t want to go back. Nina still cares for Benny (Corey Hawkins), her ex-boyfriend who is happy working for her father.

For Usnavi, staying means limited opportunities. Working in a salon, running a bodega, or being the taxi dispatcher. For Nina, leaving means going back to a world where she faces discrimination, microaggressions, and loneliness. Usnavi wants to leave. Nina wants to stay.

Before big decisions are made, these friends enjoy the last days of summer. The summer is hot and filled with the sounds of the streets. These second-generation immigrants face the consequences of their parents’ dreams.

If you enjoy a musical spectacle, “In the Height” is for you. It is easy to see how it is the precursor to Miranda’s Broadway smash “Hamilton.” Both stories start with immigrants, power struggles, and love stories. We see heroes who are driven by dreams bigger than life. The song called “Blackout” from “In the Heights” directly echoes the song “Helpless” from “Hamilton.” What happens to people who feel powerless and hopeless? Is patience and faith enough?

The film touches on themes including racism, gentrification, and assimilation. And yet the story is still fun. The actors are fair-skinned, thin, and lithe. Female bodies are displayed in a way that reminds me that this isn’t a story about equity, but survival. While the casting has caused Miranda some controversy for neglecting the presence of Afro-latin culture, I remind myself I am still in the fairy tale of Washington Heights.

We don’t hear about Haiti. The map of the Dominican Republic clearly demarks the two countries. We don’t hear about Jamaica which is only 200 miles from Cuba. “In the Heights” isn’t a documentary. It is a fantasy, much like being transported to the magical land of Oz. The streets become animated with rap and music. We expect the song and dance, but we also get water as a dance floor and fireworks for the ceiling.

Here’s where the fantasy works. We see family, friendships, and community.

It doesn’t actually matter that Usnavi has light eyes and freckles. It doesn’t matter that the Dominican Republic is his home. It matters that we can relate to the love he feels for his community. Claudia is a mother to the entire block. Usnavi loves Sonny. Benny loves and respects Kevin. Nina arrives with her dead straight Stanford hair, but quickly embraces her natural waves once she’s back in Washington Heights. We see the importance of self-love and love for friends and family.

I can see why Jon M. Chu was a good choice to direct “In the Heights.” Though it is a different kind of spectacle when compared to the movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” the clash of culture and need for assimilation are the same. Chu takes us from large spaces like the community pool to an intimate gathering in a cramped apartment. Both scene bristle with energy.

I enjoyed the music and dancing. In one scene, we see beautiful choreography as Nina and Benny dance along the balconies. I thought I knew what would happen beginning to end, but the movie cast has one special addition. Marc Anthony appears in a quiet scene as Usnavi’s uncle Gapo, father to Sonny. Marc Anthony. Voice like silk. Power like electricity. And he doesn’t sing. His presence on the screen was more powerful than his voice.

If you want a modern tale with an ending that is both bittersweet and happy, go see “In the Heights.” You will catch a few cameos and nods to the “Hamilton” along the way. It was fun on the big screen as a feast and fiesta for the eyes. Grade B.

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