D.C. and Digital Editor Micha Green, interviewed cast members of the new film, ‘In the Heights,’ including Corey Hawkins, Mellisa Barrera and Leslie Grace. (Screenshot)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
mgreen@afro.com

In a time that might seem hopeless, the storyline and music in the film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical In the Heights reminds audiences everywhere to dream.  Both in theatres and streaming exclusively on HBO Max July 11, In the Heights takes its viewers on a cultural and emotional tour through New York City’s Washington Heights and makes audiences realize the importance of celebrating their roots, honoring ancestors, embracing and appreciating others and chasing dreams to the fullest.

“It’s a celebration of dreams.  What some consider noise is a soundtrack of the community, and you can’t expect to go in the Heights and hear the crickets.  There’s a lot of music, a lot of food, there’s vibrancy, there’s color,” actress Dascha Polanco, who plays the role of Cuca, a sexy, spicy and loyal friend and hairdresser, told the AFRO in an exclusive interview with members of the In the Heights cast. .  

“We’re all dreamers in this movie,” said Leslie Grace, who plays the role of Nina, the smart Stanford student clinging to her community and culture.  

Main character Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos of Hamilton and Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It fame, begins the film talking about “Sueñitos,” which in Spanish is literally translated to “little dreams.”

No dreams are truly little for any of these characters, all who have high hopes for themselves and families in their own ways.  In addition, the film, with the screenplay by Quiara Algería Hudes, discusses quite literal “DREAMers,” referring to the Deferred, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which grants conditional residency to immigrants who came to the United States as children and are vulnerable for deportation.

“You find out Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is like the literal and figurative “DREAMer,” Leslie Grace said.

“I pulled from different stories that I’ve heard throughout my life and also just talking to people like Quiara about Sonny and how they didn’t want the fact that he was a dreamer to be something that held him down.  They wanted it to be something that he kind of helped elevate and elevate that message through the screen and let dreamers out there know that they belong,” Diaz explained to the AFRO

Further, Leslie Grace and actor and D.C. native Corey Hawkins explained that dreams also come in the forms of those hopes, desires and goals of the ancestors.

D.C. and Digital Editor Micha Green, interview cast members of the new film, {In the Heights,} including Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV and Dascha Polanco. (Screenshot)

“You know what’s crazy, usually when I think of dreamers I think of the young DREAMers, but I think of (Olga Merediz) in this film, and her dreams,” Hawkins told the AFRO, considering the hopes and goals for the community’s elderly matriarch and grandmother to many.  He explained how her dreams impact the entire community.

“She says, ‘I spent my whole life inheriting dreams from you,’ and she’s talking about her mom.  And many of us, all of us, a lot of times, spend our lives inheriting dreams from our past generation.  She goes on to say, ‘I made it through, I survived, I did it, now do I leave or stay?’ And that generation, I think about my grandma.  Their dream was just to make it here, and after that point it’s like, ‘What do I do now,’” singer Leslie Grace, who is making her film debut, said thoughtfully.

With the universal dreaming theme comes the cultural immersion into The Heights.  New York City’s Washington Heights has its own smells, sounds and sensibilities.  The film highlights the diverse cultures found in The Heights.

In rehearsing and filming on location, the actors were enveloped in Washington Heights’ culture.

“We were lucky because we had such an extensive period of rehearsal and a lot of it was up in Washington Heights at this dance studio and we got to spend a lot of time in the area.  On our lunch breaks, we’d get to walk around, get to go to the local spots, get to observe the life of the people there.  And a lot of our dancers there were people who grew up in Washington Heights.  Being able to spend time with people who actually grew up there was a blessing and a gift of research that we had during the rehearsal process.  And then being in the area to shoot it, you just absorb the energy,” Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa said.

“We had ten weeks of that, and that’s a lot.  It’s also a luxury on this film- on a film period-and Warner Brothers definitely afforded that and we needed that,” Hawkins, who also lived in Washington Heights at one point, told the AFRO.

While Washington Heights has its own particular pizazz, Hawkins emphasized to the AFRO that the neighborhood and film has recognizable features that make In the Heights universally enjoyable.

“You know I grew up in Southeast, D.C., so I recognize the similarities, I recognize D.C. in the Heights, I recognize the Heights in D.C., I recognize the Heights in L.A., I recognize all of these things and the sort of universal nature of how impactful our stories are,” Hawkins said.  “D.C. is Chocolate City, but we also identify with our Latinx brothers and sisters and we know what that journey is, that struggle is.  And so it’s just an honor, to finally be able to give this gift, or this story.  I’m just fortunate to be with this family and doing that on this one.” 

Beyond the universal messages featured In the Heights, Polanco uplifted the empowering nature of participating in the film and highlighting the diversity within the Latinx community.

“For me to draw that from my own culture, for me to be able to draw inspiration for Cuca from my aunts, and from women that I saw growing up that were pillars in my community was quite empowering.  I felt proud.  And that’s what this film is for me.  It’s a moment for me to show off how proud I am to be and where I come from.  And that’s exactly what it is, to be and where you come from and to not feel like you have to subdue that or dim it, because it’s not understood.  And that’s what the Heights is,” Polanco told the AFRO.

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Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor