MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
I recently pondered when I would be able to stop using the phrase “post pandemic” in my film reviews. That time is now. The theatrical release and concurrent streaming of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights is the perfect movie for a summer approaching normalcy.
The film opens with an introduction by Usnavi de la Vega (Ramos), originally from the Dominican Republic, who manages a bodega in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. He is a young man who dreams of what the future might bring, including a return to his native country and attracting the attention of Vanessa (Melissa Baretta), who works at a beauty parlor but dreams about becoming a famous fashion designer.
But there are other dreams at play.
Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) is returning home for the summer after spending time in California at Stanford, to fulfill the dream of her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who owns a limo company. Benny (Hawkins) works for her dad as a dispatcher and loves Nina; Kevin is not particularly supportive of their romance and still grieving the early death of his wife. The gentrification of the neighborhood is starting to take its toll on his business as well; it may be time to consider selling the company so that Nina can finish her degree work. There is just one catch: Nina is not enjoying college as a minority student.
There is a lot of excitement when the bodega learns that it has sold a winning lottery ticket that will bring the holder $96,000. It’s not an incredible fortune, but just enough to jumpstart the future of one lucky person.
We are told early in the film that there will be a blackout in just three days.
That’s the gist of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ script but, like life, with so many different destinations in mind, it’s how you take the journey that matters. In the case of In the Heights, you do it with dance, with music and with song. And you celebrate the diversity of cultures with their unique musical genres, including salsa, merengue, hip-hop, rap, and Broadway. This are people living next door from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Trinidad, and the Philippines, mixed in with native born Americans.
And this is the most idyllic version of life imaginable. The film name checks such problems as racism, gentrification, immigration barriers, and other injustices but somehow finds a way to move on to something more hope-filled. There is no police brutality, crime, drug or sex trafficking on screen. But there are big dance scenes with over 500 extras, including people of all ages and stages. It is exhilarating to see such a joyful depiction of everyday life.
Lin Manuel-Miranda knows how to create music that sees the best in people. Some accuse him and Alegria Hudes of being corny and this film as being nothing but fluff. I will claim this movie a visionary depiction of the Kingdom of God, a place where “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)
In the Heights may not show us the America as it is, but it dares to envision the best that America could be. As Christians with our own dreams for the future, let us join in the dance.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A celebration of life through family, neighborhood, and inclusive aspiration.
One pitchfork: Occasional strong language; some mild sexual innuendos.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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