A grab-bag of Cuban stereotypes from the woke era’s favorite entertainer
The second half of this year was meant to be a triumphant return for Lin-Manuel Miranda, but the results so far have been mixed. Hamilton opened up with the rest of Broadway last week, but has suffered poor returns. So it’s not terribly surprising that the Broadway League announced ahead of time they would not publish grosses for any shows this season. Hollywood set the film adaptation of Miranda’s In The Heights to be the big musical tentpole release of the summer, but it fell afoul of a controversy regarding actors with light skin playing its Afro-Latino characters. Though critics and fans alike received it warmly, In The Heights hasn’t even earned back its budget at the box office.
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The main bright spot for Miranda has been the animated Netflix film Vivo, which features Miranda as the voice of the titular kinkajou. Vivo has had fairly robust numbers on Netflix according to FlixPatrol–but as usual, a lack of detailed data makes the movie’s real streaming success difficult to gauge.
Lin-Manuel Miranda may not be as popular as you might think. To a certain type of person, he’s the most important creative American alive, but typical consumers have never heard of him. Relatively few people have actually seen Hamilton, but some of the most powerful people in this country, both in entertainment and politics, number among its greatest fans. In one particularly notorious case, Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum saw his campaign implode in 2018 in part because of a bizarre scandal where he illicitly accepted Hamilton tickets as a de facto bribe.
A Cuban stereotype of the soul
Which brings us to Vivo. Unlike the other two Lin-Manuel Miranda projects mentioned here, it’s not fair to call Vivo an exclusively Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque joint. He voices the title character and wrote the lyrics. But In the Heights libretto author Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the story. Along with a white guy. And couple of other white guys directed the movie. But with Lin-Manuel Miranda front and center, with Cuba-inspired songs and storyline, a surface impression of Vivo definitely doesn’t give off the vibe of a typical animated movie.
But Vivo is surprisingly inaccurate. It depicts Havana as a sleepy rustic town in the middle of nowhere, nothing like the incredible hustle and bustle of Miami. A person, and most certainly a child, watching the movie would never guess that Havana has a population of over two million people. That’s the five times the population of Miami proper, and only a third the size of greater Miami.
Whether we should count the latter at all is ambiguous, given that Vivo the kinkajou starts his journey in the United States in an even more exurban location. His comical unfamiliarity with buses, a newfangled technology he had apparently not encountered in Cuba, gets in the way of his trek to Miami. Then there’s the huge stretch of time he spends in the Everglades, where Vivo the kinkajou runs afoul of an improbably gigantic python that looks and acts more like an anaconda.
These are nitpicky complaints that aesthetically speaking bothered me a lot less than how most of this arbitrary worldbuilding didn’t really serve any purpose in the narrative. Vivo is clearly aiming for the same pseudo-educational cultural experience that has become Lin-Manuel Miranda’s calling card. Yet, in many ways, it’s actually an even more antiquated view of Cuban culture than the stereotypes it’s aiming to replace. Vivo, musically and otherwise, has a strong similarity to the Buena Vista Social Club. The popular nineties group was itself a deliberate throwback to pre-Cuban Revolution musical styles. It’s really off-putting and weird to see such an unironic endorsement of this traditional culture as being the true Cuban culture a full generation after the Buena Vista Social Club’s heyday.
But as is the case with much of Lin-Manuel Miranda-style entertainment, it’s genuinely hard to tell whether the reactionary bent is intentional or just borne out of profound ignorance. Where people have critiqued Hamilton for its metaphorical whitewashing, and In the Heights for its literal whitewashing, no similar acknowledgment of the questionable implications of Vivo has been forthcoming since the movie’s release. That’s probably because, as a cartoon intended for children, people have judged Vivo entirely on its quotient of bright and colorful images that adults tend to assume children find inherently amusing. It’s actually an almost perfect evolution of the Lin-Manuel Miranda form. Vivo is so childish and unpretentious that a person can’t really criticize it without seeming like a grump who can’t be satisfied. Or, worse, someone who just can’t stand to see people of color in an animated movie at all.
As big as the three summer Lin-Manuel Miranda projects may seem we aren’t actually done with him yet this year. He’ll be releasing the musical drama Tick, Tick…Boom! to Netflix in November and will be doing the music for the animated Disney flick Encanto later that month. Tick, Tick…Boom! is not a woke project, and his work with Encanto will be more similar to his role in Moana than Vivo. Still, you can expect both movies to do well critically just off the strength of his branding, even as that branding is becoming increasingly divorced from the man himself.