There are so many different ways to tell the story of America. There are many chapters to choose from, depending on your perspective. One of the best ones is the story of immigrants who fled countries that were either in the grips of bad government, poverty or war and came to the Land of Opportunity. You don’t hear much about that these days, it’s true, and that’s a shame. Written in America’s Constitution is that everyone has a shot at Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That we all are protected under the same laws. Of course, many do not see it that way and would tell a different story of America. But given the choice, I’ll take Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of this country over just about anyone else’s.
My own family on my father’s side came from Russia near the turn of the century, after World War I, to make their new lives in Yonkers, New York. My great grandfather was a house painter and my great grandmother was a dressmaker. Together they had 11 children. All of them grew up and left Yonkers to make lives elsewhere. One of those was my grandmother who moved to New York City to become one of the most prominent working women of her family and of her generation. Being Jewish, she had to lie about her name because otherwise she could not get work. Work was her life. She raised my father as a single mother, which was difficult to do in those days, as she would tell me. She believed, because her parents believed, in the American dream. That here you can be anything, do anything as long as you understand that it isn’t going to be easy and that you never give up.
That is the message of Jon M. Chu’s glorious In the Heights, the film version of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical he wrote before he wrote Hamilton. Full of life and color and song and dance, In the Heights is a film that celebrates – just as Hamilton celebrates – the way America lays down the tracks but how it is up to everyone else who comes here to make this country what they want it to be, provided, of course, that we don’t destroy the thing that makes America America.
With unabashed and unapologetic enthusiasm, Chu and Miranda bring us the neighborhood of New York called Washington Heights, which has been a gathering place for different kinds of immigrants throughout its history. It is known now as home to the largest Dominican American population but is also populated with Cuban and Puerto Rican Americans and Black and Hispanic residents. In short, it’s your average urban melting pot of the kind you can see in many different American cities.
The film’s cast is excellent top to bottom, with the main standouts being Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace and, of course, Olga Merediz as Abuela. All these characters have their own stories to tell, but the main thrust of the entire piece is how stories are passed down through the generations and how parents always want the best for their children but especially immigrant parents who started at the bottom and worked hard lives just to make sure they provided a better path for their kids and grandkids.
It’s a positive message about how aspects of the system might be stacked against you, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a path forward for success here. It is crazy that we live in a country where there can be a Jeff Bezos – the richest man in the world who is about to fly to outer space, who just bought MGM and owns Whole Foods while at the same time we have people living in cardboard boxes under the freeway. It is an imperfect country that benefits some and not others. But In the Heights isn’t a film about oppressive forces stopping you in life. It is most definitely a story that encourages forward motion no matter the obstacles. It is a story that stresses what matters most. And no, it isn’t about having a great apartment in the Village or flying to the moon. It’s your family. Those you love. Those who love you. It’s the stories they tell that you will one day tell to your children (if you have them).
One thing most people don’t get about the awards race, but especially right now, is that one of the main benefits to them is the momentum that builds throughout the season. The “dog and pony show” as it’s sometimes called, lasts months. In some cases, it can last from May all through to February of the following year. Momentum is built up with interviews, appearances and wins. The Golden Globes has long been the biggest publicity event leading up to the Oscars and it isn’t just about the night of. The publicity before the Globes members vote — not just their private parties but the special screenings, press coverage, interviews are all part of a career-building snowball that means by Oscar night a contender has made a name for themselves, win or lose.
One of the worst things about this past year, or best depending on where you sit, was the well-meaning efforts to admonish the Golden Globes or the BAFTA in the name of inclusion and equity while inadvertently punishing those who benefit from the awards race, every year but especially this one. The BAFTA’s decision to bring in a jury to hand pick nominees from out of nowhere and pretend like their enforced choices had any chance whatsoever to win those awards was, shall we say, misguided, however well-intentioned. The only way the awards race is of any use whatsoever is if a contender can use it to build momentum. None of the nominees that were selected by the BAFTA jury had time to do that. Likewise, cancelling the televised Golden Globes ceremony just means fewer accolades, less publicity and attention for the entire cast and crew of In the Heights, among other films this year. How is this, in any way, a good thing?
I’m sure to some it’s a good thing. It’s punishment rendered. But whose punishment? Humiliating the Hollywood Foreign Press members for a year, calling their membership process racist and shunning them serves Twitter, without a doubt. The corporate overlords who enact top down activism get some good PR for about two seconds until this house of cards comes tumbling down. All that will be left will be a story about how the Left lost its mind for a brief period and cancelled the Golden Globes.
In the future, if there is a future, if there is an awards race still, people will say, “Wait, they did what? Why?” And then you’ll have to start explaining, “Well you see Mark Ruffalo and Tom Cruise…” They will then say, “Tom Cruise? What!?”
Perhaps someone ought to get in front of it and write book about why the Golden Globes had to be cancelled and why that is good for progress and not something that punishes audiences, contenders and artists. Maybe people will buy the book. You could get Scarlett Johansson to read the audio version of it.
It’s like moving the All Star game out of Georgia is a win for some people. Does anyone think those who write the voting laws are going to care? It’s the people who live there that are going to feel the pain. The residents. The fans. The businesses. The corporations are protecting themselves by showing just how much power they have to move the needle, but they hurt the people on the bottom first.
Did it have to be the year two revered musicals — In the Heights and West Side Story — were hitting the race and a great comedy like Cruella? What a competition that would have been.
The last time we had a year like this one was in 2007, when Sweeney Todd, Across the Universe, and Hairspray all went head to head at the Golden Globes in the Best Musical/Comedy category. Years with musicals are rare now, but of course there was a time when they were commonplace. In fact, the first year of the Golden Globes category, 1951, An American in Paris went head to head with Singin’ in the Rain. Also nominated that year Hans Christian Anderson and I’ll See You in my Dreams. An American in Paris would go on to win Best Picture that year in one of the most exciting Oscar years on record. It famously beat A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun.
What a gift to this country that Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to write hip hop musicals. What a gift to have his perspective on what this country means, what the history of this country means and how in his expansive universe it’s a country wide open with nothing but opportunity. In a sense, In the Heights is even more relevant to America right now than Hamilton is. And that has to do with the voices that rose up in 2020 and demanded to be heard. Some of the choices made in order to address the inequities in this country have broadened awareness and opened people’s minds and hearts to the different experiences for different groups of people in this country. And for that, In the Heights resonates in a way it wouldn’t otherwise.
It is joyful, deeply moving, thrilling to watch, and one of the strongest films of the year.