Filmmaker John James thinks of Siempre Luis, the new documentary about Luis Miranda, as a quintessential story about a migrant family. Following Miranda from his youth in Puerto Rico and through his time as a political operative in New York City helping elect the likes of Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton to the New York Senate, the doc stresses Miranda’s relentless spirit, which helped him to succeed away from his hometown and his family. “For me,” Miranda tells Remezcla ahead of the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, his “is the normal story of a migrant family. I just happened to have a remarkable son who is bigger than life.”
That son, of course, is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who himself features heavily in another documentary that premiered at the fest, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme. Add in the fact that father and son star in a heartwarming scene in the Walter Mercado doc Mucho Mucho Amor where they meet the famed astrologer and you find the Mirandas all but making this year’s Sundance fest a family affair.
At the heart of their respective docs is their shared drive to spread joy. Not just joy, though: boricua joy. In We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, for example, we see a baby-faced Lin-Manuel joining forces with the likes of Thomas Kail and Chris Jackson to form a hip-hop improv group that nurtured their respective careers and led to In the Heights and Hamilton; as the OG members of the group prepare for an off-Broadway and then a Broadway run, the doc chronicles the way their show combines heart with humor whether performed in a dingy basement or on a big Broadway stage. But more poignantly, it depicts how growing up and growing apart as artists keeps their show
Throughout that doc, you see the instrumental role Luis Miranda played in getting In the Heights off the ground. A savvy political campaign strategist, Luis admits he used those same skills not just to promote his son’s musical when it opened to get Latinos to flock to that Washington Heights-set show, but also to lobby Tony voters to consider the groundbreaking phenomenon that took Broadway by storm. He was intent on sharing the joyful version of his New York City neighborhood with the world his son had created.
Likewise sharing Hamilton with a post-Maria Puerto Rico helps frame Siempre Luis, a doc that’s all about what it means for Luis to have grown up away from his beloved homeland and zeros in on the contentious relationship Puerto Rico has with the Puerto Rican diaspora in general and with both Mirandas in particular.
“Whenever there’s some news about Lin Manuel about me in Puerto Rico,” Luis tells Remezcla, “you always have some comments that say, ‘Esos se fueron! They’re gone anyway!’ And I’m fully aware that I made a conscious decision when I was not even out of adolescence to leave Puerto Rico and live my life somewhere else, which means that my role as a Puerto Rican from the diaspora has to be to help push forward an agenda that originates in Puerto Rico. It’s not my agenda.”
I am over the moon that @HBO picked up my documentary, Siempre, Luis, which premiered in @sundancefest several days ago. I look good in this picture from 30 years ago!!!! Right? pic.twitter.com/VcYuxaStBk
— Luis A. Miranda, Jr. (@Vegalteno) January 31, 2020
That, as he found out, can sometimes be hard to navigate. In an early scene in the film, James, who’s mother hails from the island, lets us witness what was supposed to be a celebratory moment. At a press conference in front of students where Lin-Manuel announced Hamilton would be performed at the University of Puerto Rico theater in its Rio Piedras campus, he was met with a small group of protesters storming the stage with signs that read “Our lives are not your theater.” James’ camera stays on Miranda senior, who at first is alarmed, then is content to let the protest play out, and eventually tries to engage in a dialogue with the students before they lash out at him as they’re escorted out by security. It’s a powerful moment that crystallizes the tension the Mirandas engender: ecstatic celebratory applause goes hand in hand with nonviolent protests; raw admiration is tinged with wary skepticism.
With his signature smile, Miranda admits that while that moment was painful, it spoke to the frustration that runs through the island. “That’s the story of Puerto Rico,” he says. “I mean, there are horrible things happening in Puerto Rico all the time, whether it’s a financial crisis or some corrupt politician, or Washington turning its back on us.”
There’s an anger that’s not to be dismissed. That makes the joy that drives Luis and Lin-Manuel’s work — the former as a relentless and happy-go-lucky political strategist, the latter as a master freestyler all too ready to turn his boxer briefs into a punchline — all the more infectious. Seen together, Siempre Luis (which was recently acquired by HBO) and We Are Freestyle Love Supreme show how hard it can be to return to where you came from.
Siempre Luis and We Are Freestyle Love Supreme premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.