After creating and starring in the most nominated musical ever to run , the sky was the limit for Lin-Manuel Miranda. And he used the post-Hamilton hype to adapt his musical In the Heights for screen. There were multiple false starts, but the film is here. And it’s a ground-breaking moment for Latin representation in Hollywood. Yet the predominantly light-skinned and white-passing cast raised questions about whose stories are told on screen.
In the Heights is set in Washington Heights, known by locals as Little Dominican Republic. And around 90% of Dominican people have African heritage. Yet there were no dark-skinned Afro-Latino leads. It’s somewhat ironic that dark-skinned people were written out of a story about racism and gentrification. And members of the community were disappointed.
Although the colorism controversy has triggered a very necessary conversation about anti-Blackness in Hollywood, we at AfterEllen would like to talk about one area of representation where In the Heights succeeded: the romance between Daniela and Carla.
In the original musical, these two were business partners, running the salon that served as a source of gossip as well as looks. But now, in the film version, they are life partners too. And it’s adorable. In the opening montage, Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) wakes Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) with a kiss as the block gears up for another day. They’re shown alongside a range of other families getting breakfast, getting ready for school or work. And that domesticity – the way Daniela and Carla are established not only as a couple, but part of a community – is what makes it so special.
When this musical opened back in 2008, it would still have been unthinkable to have a lesbian couple shown as pillars of their community in a family-friendly film. And thirteen years on this romance between Daniela and Carla feels like a definite step in the right direction. Throughout In the Heights, they are affectionate and playful. The easy intimacy between Daniela and Carla is present at their salon, the poolside, dinner parties – a love between two women is simply accepted as one of the ties that bind this community.
Daniela is the instigator and lead of what is arguably the musical’s catchiest song, Carnaval Del Barrio. What begins as reminiscence about her childhood grows into a rousing number that inspires the block to make the most of their last day together. And when a male dancer gets a bit too friendly with her lady, Carla is not shy about intervening!
Those who fell in love with Stephanie Beatriz during her Brooklyn 99 days – when she played bisexual badass Detective Rosa Diaz – will be hard pressed to recognize the actress. Carla is Rosa’s polar opposite, bubbly and outgoing. Although this character is a definite departure from her best known role, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Beatriz’s dramatic range. Plus, her line about being “Chile-Domini-Curican” is one of the most joyful moments of In the Heights.
Perhaps one day there will be critically acclaimed musicals with lesbian leads adapted for screen. But In the Heights takes us one step closer to that reality. Given the popular Hollywood trend of assigning tragic fates to lesbian characters, it’s simply a relief that Daniela and Carla didn’t lose everything to gentrification. Yes, they ultimately have to leave Washington Heights. But they do so with their relationship and business intact, ready for a bright new start in Brooklyn. Seeing this Sapphic salon duo happy, thriving, and prosperous is the cherry on top of In the Heights.
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