Will “In the Heights” take us there?
From “Our Latin Thing” to “In the Heights:” Colorism & Criticism
I’ve always said that history repeats itself but in different ways. The recent bruhaha over “In the Heights” has crystalized that adage.
Today’s criticisms over the movie’s lack of Afro-Latinos are the antithesis of the strong opinions against the 1972 movie “Our Latin Thing/Nuestra Cosa” depicting Latinos and the nascent salsa movement of that time.
The Cine 2 Theater where “Our Latin Thing” premiered that hot summer of July 21st of ’72 was sold out. There was no red carpet, no mainstream preshow interviews, no step and repeat, only a crowd of mainly excited Puerto Ricans, some Dominicans, a sprinkling of Cubans, and a few Jews and Italians anxious to get in.
Love was in the air; cheers, whistles, and hoots in the theater; hugs, kisses, and tears outside. Emotions ran sky-high. We hadn’t seen ourselves on a celluloid screen since West Side Story, and many of those actors weren’t even Puerto Rican, let alone Latinos. Except for Rita Moreno who did us proud then even when Hollywood, in its stereotype, made her up to look darker.
“Our Latin Thing” was a hit among the critics. The NY Times, Rolling Stone, the Daily News, Billboard Magazine, Cashbox, the Village Voice all had something good to say about this rough and tumble, unpolished and unfiltered view of who we are. The musicians who gigged locally before the film’s opening were subsequently booked in Venezuela, France, even as far as Japan. Record sales soared. A worldwide “salsa” music movement was sparked.
Yet many of the early Puerto Rican and Latino non-profit organizations were offended by Our Latin Thing’s jagged edges. They were horrified of the camera’s glare on the LES basement cockfights; offended by the drug-addicted couple dancing in the streets; upset over the scene where cops arrest an Afro-Latino; and clutched nouveau riche pearls at the Ifa bembe ceremony many called santeria. They took exception to this unscripted film carping it excluded the up-and-coming middle-class, hard-working Ricans making ground in government and community affairs.