Who Does “West Side Story” Really Serve?

A scene from

(Photo credit: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox)

The original West Side Story (1961) film confused me when I first watched it as a kid, some 40 years after its release. Too young to understand racist stereotypes and brownface, I didn’t recognize these Puerto Ricans, not their voices nor their motivations, at all. It was Anita’s sharpest lyric that was most puzzling: “Puerto Rico / My heart’s devotion / Let it sink back in the ocean.” Unlike composer Stephen Sondheim, who admitted to being entirely unfamiliar with the people he wrote about, I actually knew Nuyoricans and DiaspoRicans—and not once had I ever heard them express such disgust and revulsion for the island. (The stage musical’s initial lyrics called Puerto Rico an “ugly island” of “tropical diseases.”) Still, the film won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture; but despite its groundbreaking mainstream representation of Puerto Ricans, it both mischaracterized and misunderstood the diaspora.

This weekend, 60 years later, we’ll see Steven Spielberg’s 2021 West Side Story compete for Best Picture and six other Academy Awards. The remake, which became available to stream online this month after its lackluster box-office run, had as its apparent goal a narrative update—executed by playwright Tony Kushner—meant to correct a problematic classic with authenticity. But despite lavish praise for its cinematography and choreography, as well as cheers for its Latinx representation, Spielberg’s West Side Story reproduces the original film’s artificial, unsatisfying portrayal of Boricuas while granting its white characters a chance for redemption in the eyes of a modern progressive audience. With big names and a big budget, the remake is well-executed, picturesque, and beautifully shot—a kind of glossy wrapping for a dusty, re-gifted antique.

Spielberg has been vocal about the amount of effort put into the film’s depiction of Puerto Rican culture in the 1950s, with consultants making sure the cast understood their characters and dialect coaches training their tongues. Spielberg’s quest to remake West Side Story began years ago: The filmmaker imagined a work that could be a kind of salve for national division, and, unsurprisingly, this naive Hollywood optimism delivers conflicting symbolism. Spielberg’s film still upholds the American dream even as its finer details—the mural of flags with a quote from Pedro Albizu Campos, an independentista rendition of “La Borinqueña,” and shouts of “Puerto Rico, libre!”—wink at Puerto Ricans’ century-long struggle for independence. There’s a selective historical context here that feels disjointed. Much like the recent exodus from Puerto Rico to the United States, Puerto Ricans in the ’50s were forced to leave their homes due to the economic oppression from the colonial power. If Spielberg’s Sharks are independentistas, how should an audience reconcile that attitude with yet another version of “America”?

White actors in brownface weren’t all that was wrong with the original West Side Story; it was the musical’s overall storyline, too. The original playwright, Arthur Laurents, used Romeo and Juliet as the base, of course, though he reimagined it as a race war between two ethnic groups instead of a battle between rich Italian families. The result yields an obvious oversimplification of racism that looks kindly on the poor, troubled white boys and villainizes the knife-toting Brown ones. In rewriting, Kushner failed to make significant narrative changes, recycling some frustrating parts that should have merited more rethinking. The story still scripts its Brown characters—particularly the women—superficially while simultaneously making space for its white characters to grow and develop from the 1961 versions. This is clear in the characterizations of Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Anita (Ariana DeBose)—compelling, essential roles that feel, in Kushner’s script, not just under-evolved but underwritten. Sure, Anita talks about opening her own shop, and Maria mentions college, but as in the original musical and film, we know little about them beyond their romantic entanglements. The sharp banter between Zegler and DeBose (who is a Best Supporting Actress nominee) make for some of the film’s sweetest moments, and both are fantastic entertainers with strong voices. But Maria and Anita remain a binary of virgin and whore, with casting that can’t help but feel colorist. Zegler, though not white (as her predecessor, Natalie Wood, was) fulfills the light-skinned Latina in the “virgin” role, while DeBose, a Black Puerto Rican, plays the sultry and hypersexualized “whore” character.

Then there’s the legendary Rita Moreno, the sole Boricua in the 1961 film (though she, too, was darkened with makeup), whose role in the new film—Valentina, Doc’s widowed wife—was written specifically for her. It’s a puzzling characterization: Valentina stands in for Doc and functions as a diplomatic mediator between the Jets and the Sharks; and though she’s funny and endearing, her positionality makes little sense. Narratively, it’s hard to see the character as anything other than an assimilated Boricua who ultimately looks out for the white Jets—specifically, golden boy Tony (Ansel Elgort)—more than she does her fellow Puerto Ricans. (Everyone looks out for Tony, onscreen and off: Elgort was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old before the film’s release and the team has consistently shielded him from accountability.) Valentina hides Tony from the police after he kills Bernardo (David Alvarez), but when Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) avenges Bernardo by killing Tony, she solemnly walks him to a waiting police car. Why, for Valentina, is Tony more worthy of protection than Chino, a character whose expanded backstory in Spielberg’s film has him in the stale role of the “gifted migrant” whose bright future is endangered by his environment?

To Anita, meanwhile, Valentina is simply a traitor: Sure, she prevents the Jets from raping Anita, but as Anita points out, she not only tolerates them, but accommodates them. (“Tú les das techo a estos puercos!” she shouts—“You’re giving these pigs a roof.”) In a recent interview, DeBose described this scene as an illustration of a generational divide between the two. Valentina is more assimilated because of her marriage to a white man, so it seems she hopes for common ground between the white residents and the Puerto Ricans, whereas Anita is a newcomer who views the violence and racism as completely irreconcilable. DeBose adds that Valentina knows that Tony and other Jets consider her a gringa and “she actively allows these boys to hang out in her shop, and she gives them safe harbor, even though they commit incredible atrocities against her people, her community.” She’s Puerto Rican, but she’s on the white folks’ side.

The story still scripts its Brown characters—particularly the women—superficially while simultaneously making space for its white characters to grow and develop from the 1961 versions.

Spielberg’s film also errs on the white folks’ side in two notable character developments that depart from the 1961 version: The Jet leader Riff (Mike Faist)’s girlfriend Graziella (Paloma Garcia-Lee) and Jet member Anybodys (iris menas). The updates for these characters function as notes of liberal optimism—bright indications of the goodness of character for the white folks linked to the Jets. At its core, West Side Story and all of its iterations have always been on the white folks’ side. In “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets are humanized, but there’s no tangible equivalent for the Sharks. In the remake, the Sharks remain under-examined, with few characters given further development or individual attention. Individualism is a privilege granted almost exclusively to the white characters. (“La Borinqueña” grants the Sharks a brief spotlight, but it doesn’t humanize them on an individual level.)

Graziella, Anita’s foil, relishes in the Jets’ racism. In the seconds before they attempt to rape Anita, Graziella practically spits at her for speaking Spanish. But when the boys attack, Graziella tries to stop them, at one point desperately clinging to Anita before the Jets throw her out of Doc’s shop. This plot change delivers a wholly ignorant notion: that this stereotypically racist white woman character would’ve suddenly chosen gender solidarity over racial solidarity. It’s revisionist and wishful thinking. While many could argue that musicals aren’t meant to be realistic, they project a reality that some think could be honest and true—authentic representations, if you will—and viewers might not care to pay attention to the difference. In this scene, the audience knows the horror that Anita is about to experience, but we’re forced to empathize, too, with the anguished Graziella as she bangs theatrically on the door, begging the boys to stop. The focus shifts from a Black Boricua woman facing the white men who will violently take what they want from her (echoing some 100-plus years of colonialism) to feature the helpless cries of a white woman magically empowered by a new sense of morality and good intentions who was, ultimately, useless. Was this sudden sister solidarity part of Spielberg’s vision of unity?

In the 1961 film, only one woman is present when the gang attacks Anita: the scrappy Jet wannabe Anybodys. She stays in the shadows as a nearly forgotten bystander. (There was no white woman savior.) Kushner rewrote Anybodys for 2021 as a transgender character revived by trans actor iris menas. It’s a modern update for a character who was somewhat ignored in previous iterations that was both necessary and smart, providing Anybodys a special spotlight. After the Jets continue dismissing and misgendering him at the precinct, Anybodys emphatically declares that he’s not a girl and leads an entertaining fight scene, kicking ass and escaping the police. Later, one of the Jets actually shows respect for Anybodys by kindly calling him “buddy boy.” This aw that’s sweet moment contributes to illustrating the Jets’ humanity. While it could’ve come off as an inclusion aimed at checking a queer diversity box, Anybodys’s character development from 1961 to today felt like the kind of intelligent rewriting that I wish the Puerto Rican characters would’ve received, too.

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West Side Story resists a progressive update because its entire premise presents Puerto Ricans as innately, irreconcilably other, constantly forcing us to imagine our existence in opposition to whiteness. Recreating this film keeps pushing Puerto Ricans to work from this place of limitation. Just the act of reviving this work has been heavily scrutinized, particularly by Puerto Rican and Latinx critics who have questioned whom the remake truly serves. “Bringing West Side Story back to life under these conditions—rather than using these resources to support and amplify Latino voices—is to reinscribe its symbolic importance, affirm white cultural authority, and prevent other narratives from coming into being,” wrote Dr. Frances Negrón-Muntaner in her November 2021 piece for the Women’s Media Center, adding: “As in the past, the white liberal solution is to generally keep decision-making power and profits in their hands while simulating more developed storylines through casting choices and minor script tweaks. The endgame of this gambit is to ensure the reproduction of white cultural products without its creators being labeled racists or giving up their authority to determine what (other) tales are worth telling and how.”

At the Oscars, it’s likely that Spielberg’s West Side Story will win some awards and applause. Ariana DeBose’s nomination, like Rita Moreno’s before her, is historic and laudable, and I will be cheering her on. Ultimately, though, I already know the lesson I’ve learned: As Andrea González-Ramírez put it, West Side Story is not for Puerto Ricans like me. Spielberg’s confusing attempt to illustrate national unity feels like Oscar bait that allows Hollywood gatekeepers to praise Latinx representation that remains shallow and constrained by the shackles of this theatrical and cinematic “classic.” The film merely helps white people, especially those who adore the musical while ignoring its racist origins and flaws, feel better about themselves.

 

by Rosa Cartagena
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Bitch’s senior editor, Rosa is a culture writer, arts editor, musician, retired fencer, and Bad Bunny buff. She’s written for Washingtonian, Smithsonian, and elsewhere.