Before there was Hamilton, there was In the Heights. Lin Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical also featured Latin rhythms and rapping rhymes, but this time the black and Latin American actors played contemporary black and latinx characters, not dead white guys.
The musical – whose recent film adaptation I just saw at the cinema – is set in the New York City District of Washington Heights, a predominantly Latin American area under threat of gentrification. A community and a way of life is disappearing, and the characters feel – to varying degrees – powerless in the face of the change.
(Though having said that, one of my beefs with the film is that there is a song called ‘Powerless’ which seems designed to communicate that the days-long power cut they’re experiencing reflects how the characters feel about their lives. In reality, though, most of them have hopes and dreams and are determined not to be beaten by what life throws at them. Odd and confusing.)
But I digress. I really wrote this to highlight one of the things I loved about the film. (There are some slight spoilers for the film in what follows. If you have any intention of seeing it, do that before you read on.)
“You’re not the parent here”
I love love loved that the film depicted respect for parental authority. And respect for the older generation generally, if it comes to that.
So many films, plays and TV programmes today are shot through with the assumption that anyone over about 35 is hopelessly out of touch, and ought to be ignored. Children and teens are the ones who really understand what is true and right and good. If (when) adults oppose them, they should just disobey anyway, and eventually the adults will come to see they were wrong and their children were right after all.
In this musical, though, a father gently but firmly reminds his daughter that responsibility for the family finances rests with him, not her.
Later, in a novel twist, his daughter comes round to his way of thinking! The change is brought about by something else she sees, not just her ruminating on her father’s wishes, but still – she listens, she reflects, and she changes her mind.
Her decision is also influenced by some words of wisdom from the neighbourhood grandma. ‘Abuela’ is a key figure in both the plot and the neighbourhood. She doesn’t have children of her own, so she has ‘adopted’ many of the young people living around her. She is loved and honoured by them, and truly a part of their lives in a beautiful way.
There is even a storyline in which a father who neglects his child and sits at home drinking (and perhaps taking drugs) all day is respected and his permission sought for something. He hasn’t earned that respect in any way, but he’s the boy’s father, so is honoured for his position.
It was so good to see this depicted on screen. It was so understated that I don’t think Miranda was trying to make a point out of it. Perhaps he was just reflecting the true attitudes of that community. I don’t know. It’s certainly not a theme he includes in Hamilton, so it’s not just a drum he seeks to bang at every opportunity.
Thank you, Lin, for showing that it is possible to tell a good story that doesn’t require authority figures to be demonised or ridiculed, and doesn’t assume that the younger generation know better than their elders and have nothing to learn from them.