Jon M. Chu’s long-awaited film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” should have debuted to critical acclaim. From the dynamic musical numbers to the film’s stars, which include “Hamilton” standout Anthony Ramos, “Orange Is The New Black” star Dasha Polanco, and “Straight Outta Compton” breakout Corey Hawkins, all the signs pointed to another progressive hit on par with Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Instead, in a film that was supposed to immortalize present-day Washington Heights — in a community called the Little Dominican Republic — the lack of Black and brown faces on screen was glaring. After all, 90 percent of Dominicans are of African descent. Unfortunately, as it is with “In the Heights,” colorism is pervasive in Latinidad. As a result, exhausting conversations about skin color, an entire market for skin lightening creams, and generation-long skin color preferences within families persist. All of this stems from rampant racism, colonialism, and anti-Blackness.
The pushback against “In the Heights” began during the press run for the film when Felice León, a video producer for The Root who identifies as Afro-Latinx, asked Chu point-blank about the void of darker skin actors in the movie — especially in lead roles. “As a Black woman of Cuban descent specifically from New York City,” she told him, “it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the fact that most of your principal actors were light-skinned or white-passing Latinx people.” Chu seemed taken aback and responded that he and the creative team aimed to “get the people who were best for those roles.”
While there is no doubt that the entire cast of “In the Heights” is talented (the film is garnering rave reviews despite the backlash), there is a large pool of Afro-Latinx actors in Hollywood who could have been called upon to appear in the film in various roles. In the ’90s, Tatyana Ali, whose parents are Indo-Trinidadian and Afro-Panamanian, dazzled as Ashley Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Likewise, Reagan Gomez-Preston, who is Afro-Puerto Rican, was a staple on TV shows like “The Parent ‘Hood” and “One on One.” Both women have worked periodically and have most recently been on shows like “The Young and the Restless” and “Queen Sugar.” However, they are often cast as Black Americans, erasing their Latinx roots. Ali and Gomez-Preston have long since deserved more recognition.
Moreover, to act as if Afro-Latinx actors are few and far between is simply dumbfounding. Here is a look at some stars who fall right into that category — and others who deserve more attention.
Regina Wagner/Geisler-Fotopress/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
The 23-year-old Jerome first rose to fame in Barry Jenkins’ Academy-Award winning film, “Moonlight.” In 2019, the Dominican actor became the first Afro-Latino actor to win an Emmy for acting for his portrayal of Korey Wise in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries “When They See Us.” Most recently, the actor appeared opposite Idris Elba in “Concrete Cowboys.” Accepting his Emmy award in 2019, Jerome address the representational value of the win. “I hope this is a step forward for Dominicans, for Latinos, for Afro-Latinos,” he said. “It’s about time we are here.”
MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore
Indya Moore as Angel and MJ Rodriguez as Blanca in “Pose”
The critically acclaimed “Pose” has just ended its three-season run on FX. Actors MJ Rodriguez, who is Afro-Puerto-Rican, and Indya Moore, who is of Haitian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican ancestry, also deserve top billing not simply for Afro-Latinx representation but also transgender/LGBTQ representation. With trans rights under attack across the globe, but especially in the United States, both of these actors must continue to get more recognition in Hollywood.
In an editorial for the Emmys site, Rodriguez spoke directly to the representational issues she faces in her work. “At a very young age I knew that being a young Afro-Latina, there were going to be some uphill climbs for me,” she wrote. “There’s just not enough being done within the Black and Latino communities as far as representation is concerned, behind and in front of the cameras.”
Afro-Panamanian actor Emayatzy Corinealdi made her film lead debut in Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film, “Middle of Nowhere.” Since then, she has starred opposite Don Cheadle in “Miles Ahead” and on the TV shows “Ballers” and “Evil.” Having seen her range, it’s past time Corinealdi was cast as a lead in another film or in her own series.
“The truth is I’m a black actress in Hollywood, and that’s hard,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “But that doesn’t mean I have to live in that space. It’s our responsibility to try and change that, to do whatever we can contribute to make that change. That’s the important thing.”
“How To Get Away with Murder” alum Vann, who identifies as Afro-Puerto Rican, has dominated the small-screen since her breakout role on the highly-praised antebellum set thriller “Underground.” Next, she will be seen in Tyler Perry’s passion project “A Jazzman’s Blues,” which is set to debut on Netflix in 2022. Hopefully, this catalyzes seeing Vann more regularly on screen.
“What we see in the mass Latino media is European, European, European,” Vann said in a 2016 interview. “We haven’t talked enough about where this colorism comes from, about that history, how color was just used to divide us and create self-loathing. But there shouldn’t be any doubt when you look in the mirror that you are a beautiful representation of your race and culture.”
Taís Araújo and Lázaro Ramos
Taís Araújo and Lázaro Ramos
Composite: "Lázaro Ramos" CPFL Cultura/Damião Francisco used under CC BY 2.0 and Hubert Boesl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Afro-Brazilian actors Taís Araújo and Lázaro Ramos both star in “Executive Order” and have also dominated Brazilian television since the late ’90s and early 2000s, respectively, which is still an extremely rare feat. In Brazil, white-passing actors still dominate the big and small screens. The actors, who are also husband and wife, were chosen to dub the 2019 animated feature “Spies in Disguise” in Portuguese for Will Smith and Rashida Jones’ characters. However, with long resumes, multiple awards, and countless nominations under both of their belts, it’s long past time for them to become recognizable faces in Hollywood, especially amid Ramos’ directorial debut.
Maarten de Boer for Variety
“The First Purge” actor, Y’lan Noel, who is of Panamanian descent, first stole our hearts in the first season of “Insecure” as Issa’s (Issa Rae) lover Daniel. From there, Noel has been a staple in Stella Meghie’s romantic comedies “The Weekend” and “The Photograph.” Next, the 32-year-old will star in the forthcoming FX drama, “The Spook Who Sat by the Door.” In a 2018 Collider interview, the actor said, “‘Insecure’ is such a revelation because we get to see us being represented as super dynamic and regular, and not like extreme tropes or stereotypes.”
Afro-Brazilian actor Yaya DaCosta was first introduced to us on the third season of “America’s Next Top Model.” The Brown University alum has long since expanded her career. A staple on “Chicago Med” for six seasons, she will next be seen in Lee Daniels’ “Our Kind of People” opposite Morris Chestnut and Joe Morton for Fox. In a 2019 interview with TheGrio, DaCosta sounded hopeful about the future. “When I got an audition recently for a Colombian woman I was like ‘Really, like they asked for me? Really?’” she said. “Because in the past we would never have been considered if you didn’t look like Jennifer Lopez.”
This is by no means an extensive list of the Afro-Latinx actors working in Hollywood. From Afro-Panamanian actor Melissa De Sousa, who has starred in everything from “Black Lightning” to “Single Ladies” and is set to reprise her role as Shelby for the third time in Paramount+’s Limited series “The Best Man: The Final Chapters,” to relative newcomer Rhenzy Feliz, a Dominican, New York-born actor who dazzled in Hulu’s short-lived series, “The Runaways,” Afro-Latinx actors and creators are standing in plain sight, but Hollywood continues to overlook many of them.
In his apology letter for the colorism in “In the Heights,” Miranda said: “I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”
There should be no more apologies. After all, continuing not to cast people of color in their own narratives is a form of complicity in the centering of whiteness. That doesn’t require a mea culpa; it requires action.
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