'West Side Story' rights some wrongs, but not nearly enough

Some stories need to be left in the past to make way for new ones

Spielberg makes a bold yet shallow attempt at bringing West Side Story into this century.

This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424.

Back in 2017, I ran down the stairs excited to tell my parents a West Side Story remake had been announced. My dad, who exclusively watched Bangladeshi soap operas and American true crime, had no idea what I was talking about.

Still, I remained ecstatic.

I’ve been in love with West Side Story (1961) since I first saw it in middle school. But it’s outdated and problematic for many reasons—including its both sides-ing of anti-Puerto Rican racism, the casting of white actors as Puerto Rican, and the use of brownface. While it resonated with me as a child of immigrants and still does, I was excited to see the story updated.

Due to COVID-19 delays, West Side Story (2021) didn’t premiere until last month, and there was a lot to love about the movie.

The original film’s lively atmosphere is preserved while showcasing the talents of Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose, who make a stunning Maria and Anita. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in 1961, even makes an appearance as Valentina, a new character with a refreshing backstory.

West Side Story (2021) is in many ways an improvement over the original, from music to costumes to an added storyline concerning the gentrification of diverse New York neighbourhoods.

But it doesn’t do enough.

While Spielberg brought on experts of Puerto Rican descent to consult on the film, WSS (2021) is still a film directed and written by white men—and it shows.

The original WSS was critiqued for including only one Puerto Rican actor, so it was confusing when Spielberg chose a non-Puerto Rican actress to play Maria. While Zegler is undoubtedly talented, Spielberg sends a message with his casting that Hollywood still views Hispanic and Latinx people as a monolith.

We also can’t ignore the original work was spearheaded by Stephen Sondheim, who beautifully spoke to feeling isolated as an outsider as a queer Jewish man rising to fame in the 1950s. Regardless of his background, Sondheim and his peers didn’t have the lived experience of Puerto Rican Americans.

This lack of experience laid the foundation for the tokenizing of Puerto Ricans and the over-simplification of systemic racism in WSS.

Furthermore, West Side Story (2021)’sleading man, Tony, was severely out-of-place in a musical and lacked any sort of chemistry with Maria. And, more importantly, he also happens to be a known sexual predator.

Part of me understands why Ansel Elgort was kept on as Tony—he had already filmed and wrapped WSS before allegations of sexual assault came out against him. That doesn’t change the fact that every time he came onscreen, I was reminded how men in Hollywood can be despicable to women and girls with zero repercussions for their actions.

Even if Elgort was talented enough to play Tony, his presence is a slap in the face to survivors everywhere.

Tony, a modern-day Romeo, is meant to act as a foil to the racist and sexist dynamics poisoning members of his former gang, the Jets. We shouldn’t believe the best Tony Spielberg could find was a man who cares as little about women as Elgort. That’s an insult to the role.

West Side Story (1961) was a story that needed to be told. Despite its flaws, it was groundbreaking and paved the way for real Puerto Rican representation as well as more nuanced conversations about racism in America.

However, we’ve progressed beyond needing white men to give people of colour scraps of representation. Today, we’re seeing more diversity on the big screen than ever before for Puerto Rican Americans as well as, more broadly, immigrant communities.

West Side Story should’ve been left alone. We have better stories now.

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