The release of In The Heights's trailer is further proof that Lin-Manuel Miranda's art relies on the musical fetishisation of working class and brown communities, writes James Bristol.
I am from a gentrified community. It was not gentrified when I was born, almost three decades ago now, but I have watched it turn into a cesspit of hipster cafes and tech startups. I have a distinct memory of my mother getting really excited about a thrift store that opened around the corner when I was 9 - finally, she said, we can throw out your Dads trousers and get you a pair that fit properly. My auntie and her took me and my cousins on the Monday morning it opened, excited not only at the prospect of clothing their children but of finding some nice, local bargains for themselves. These women had their children miss school for this because they were so convinced that the other neighbourhood families were going to scoop up all the good stuff and leave nothing for the rest of us; these women were delighted and excited at the prospect of a communal event that could help clothe their families. They were shocked to find the line of white wealthy-looking youth lined up around the block. They were even more shocked when they finally entered and found Hawaiian shirts for sale for £40 and furs for over £300. I remember my mother and auntie bursting into laughter. But there was anger in their laughs. We stopped for food on the way home and they whispered angrily while my cousins and I chowed down on some home-made Caribbean chicken. We didn't care at the time because what I didn't know was that the thrift store itself has replaced a corner shop that went out of business because rent prices were too high.
Gentrification is not a musical. It is not beautiful or inspiring. Most of all it is not a quirky background for wealthy theatre personalties or film-makers to make vapid commentary about race and class. But the trailer for In The Heights has proved once again that people like Lin Manuel Miranda are far more interested in making woke movies (and money) above the examination of our complex social and economic realities. Places like Washington Heights are not "where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big", they are the result of decades of political and cultural oppression. The story of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos)'s character who "saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life" sounds depressing and scary, not inspiring and song-worthy. It is not inspiring to be poor and even if it were it's not your story to tell. Real, hard-working Puerto Ricans in Washington Heights, people whose lives, homes and families have been destroyed by gentrification really don't need Miranda's brand of crude, bland and shallow poverty porn.
Miranda has combined forces with another insufferable neoliberal, Jon M. Chu, to achieve this masterpiece of tone-deafness. Miranda's art is racist and Chu's art supports the nouveau-riche bourgeoisie. Both are rich Americans and both have terrible track records when it comes to showing any sort of understanding or consideration of class or race in their theatre and film work. I suggest watching or reading any of Ishmael Reed's content to understand just how bad Miranda is when it comes to anti-black racism. As for Chu, he directed Crazy Rich Asians, which is a sickeningly shallow glamorisation of the deep and disgusting class divide that plagues East Asian communities. I would not trust either of these men to order a meal at a takeaway shop, yet alone capture any deeply complex story that a gentrified community might have to tell.
I'm not arguing that musicals or their film adaptations shouldn't be made about gentrified communities or that working class experiences should never be examined through the means of music. After all, West Side Story is one of the greatest films of all time. And that is clearly what In The Heights is trying to be: the new West Side Story. What it's going to be is yet another Blind Side, or The Help, or Green Book. It's a solid fact that people that enjoy Miranda's work are not actually interested with examining their own prejudices or opinions about the communities they watch through the comfortable lens of neoliberal theatre and cinema, only to assuage their own white guilt or their morbid fascination with "how the other side lives". By turning our lives, our experiences into pithy rap-burlesque songs Miranda is doing a disservice to the actual communities he is profiting off. So to him and anybody who chooses to spend money watching In The Heights: fuck you and fuck off.
Image credit: Warner Bros