Day 6·Q&A

Women are the real stars of movie musical In The Heights, says critic

Based on the Broadway musical by Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, In The Heights stars Anthony Ramos as a bodega owner in the tight-knit Latino community of Washington Heights. But for Latino theatre critic Jose Solís, the real heart of the film is Daniela's beauty salon — and the women who frequent it.

'It's not winking when it's saying that, yeah, women run the world': culture critic Jose Solís

Daniela, played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, right, owns a salon which is a gathering place for many of the women of In The Heights. The film also stars, from left, Stephanie Beatriz, Leslie Grace and Dascha Polanco, background. (Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

While Anthony Ramos is being celebrated for his role in the film adaptation of Tony-award winning musical In The Heights, critic Jose Solís says it's the women in the film who are the real stars.

In The Heights stars Ramos as the film's narrator, Usnavi, a bodega owner in Washington Heights, a predominantly Latino neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan.

One critic called the film "exuberant and full of life." Among the women who make the film burst with energy are Broadway's Daphne Rubin-Vega and Olga Merediz, Brooklyn 99 star Stephanie Beatriz, and Vida star Melissa Barrera.

With music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is best known for the musical Hamilton, and a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the film's release is long awaited. 

Solís, a Honduran culture critic, recently reviewed the film for American Theatre and tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury what makes the film so special — and why it reminds him of family.

Below is part of that conversation.

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, a bodega owner in the Washington Heights neighbourhood in Manhattan and the film's narrator. (Macall Polley/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

I know that you saw this film for the first time more than a year ago, but now you're in Honduras with your mom. What I want to know is, have you watched In The Heights with her yet? 

I did, and my mom actually doesn't speak English. She has very, very basic English. So it was exciting for me to get to watch this with her in the living room where I grew up. 

And although she couldn't follow the dialogue, she was dancing on the couch. We were having mojitos and she was dancing on the couch and she was like, "I need those tunes in my iPod, ASAP."

That sounds like a great moment for both of you because you've said that the biggest stars of In The Heights are women, especially Abuela Claudia. So for people who haven't seen this film yet, who is Abuela Claudia?

Abuela Claudia is kind of like the matriarch of the Heights, of the barrio that's featured in the movie. 

If you're fantasy and sci-fi people, I would kind of describe her as Yoda for Washington Heights — but like Yoda with an edge. She knows the ins and outs of the neighbourhood. 

She doesn't actually have any biological children, but she's become this mother, grandmother, sister figure to all the people in her neighbourhood.

Critic Jose Solís says Olga Merediz's performance as Abuela Claudia, the neighbourhood matriarch, is the "backbone" of the film. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Who is it that you see reflected in Abuela Claudia?

I have so many Abuela Claudias, like both my grandmothers. Both my mom's mom and my dad's mom were Yodas in my life as well. 

So my Abuela Anna, for instance — my dad's mom — she started unions in banana plantations. And she literally put on pants, which is something that wasn't really done back then in Honduras, and she set off to help farmers unionize.

And my Abuela Norma who, on her own, raised seven kids basically by selling everything from soup to jewellery to selling lottery tickets in the market ... she raised my mom, who is the woman who I admire the most.

When I was in college in Costa Rica, I came to Honduras and I couldn't even get to see my mom because she was taking part in a hunger strike. She was sitting outside the Congress in Tegucigalpa protesting corruption, and that's the kind of women that I have in my life.

I'm just like the luckiest man, I think, on Earth.

WATCH | Trailer for In The Heights

In Abuela Claudia, we see somebody who also understands the generational conflicts and sacrifices that were made by her mother for her well-being and for her to come to America. And she does deliver one of the biggest musical numbers in the film. Paciencia Y Fe is the name of that showstopping number, and [actor Olga Merediz] is just a fantastic performer. What did you think of this sequence in the film?

I was so moved because it really made me think about all those women in my life. 

There's a very striking image near the end of the number where we see — it's set in a subway station in New York, and we see this long, long, long hallway. And we literally can see the ghosts, almost, of her ancestors and all the people that she's carrying with her wherever she goes. 

I burst into tears watching that number for the first time, and it's had that same effect every time that I've seen the movie since.

There's a beauty salon that figures prominently in the Heights: Daniela's. It's the central hub for neighbourhood gossip, but you say it's also something more than that. What is it about this place that makes it so special?

Daniela's salon really reminded me of the place that my mom used to take me when I was little. It was called Leah's. It's a tiny, tiny salon in what seemed to me like the highest mountain in Tegucigalpa where I was born. 

I would go there and the women would open up in such a way that it seemed that nothing could harm them there, and Daniela's in the film does exactly that. It's a sanctuary.

For Solís, In The Heights celebrates the role of women in Latino communities. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

I love how Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays Daniela, also becomes kind of like a mini Abuela Claudia within her domain. And it's this really exciting, beautiful world where women protect each other and nurture each other. 

Something that Daphne Rubin-Vega also mentioned when I talked to her was that it's a place also where queer children get to feel accepted when they're little and when they're growing up.

I just want to talk about the men in the film for an instant, because Usnavi's dad is not present. He's gone. He's passed on. Sonny's dad in this performance by Marc Anthony is this curiously inert figure, a very, very great performance. 

What did you think of that — the fact that the men don't have the same kind of community that the women seem to have?

I really don't want to generalize, but in my experience, based entirely on my background and the people that I know and how I grew up and what I've seen, this is something that's prevalent in our culture. 

It's the women who are the unspoken leaders [and] that's the thing that's really strange.... It's like we know that moms and grandmas are in charge, but we pretend that the men are running things. 

In The Heights is set in the predominately Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights in New York City. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

And we kind of see that even with Usnavi, who is the narrator. The things that happen to Usnavi depend completely on the women around him. 

What I love about the movie, though, is that it doesn't condescend to the men and ... it's not winking when it's saying that, yeah, women run the world.

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Annie Bender. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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