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The verdict on Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story is still out. Is it faithful to the original? Is the original better? Should it have been more radically reimagined? Should it have been remade at all? These debates do at least tell us something about what, in our moment, constitutes the controversial and what passes as unremarkable. If we can illuminate that, then a discussion of the film is worth the trouble, even if the film itself is not.
For those unfamiliar, West Side Story is a musical about the ill-fated romance between a Puerto Rican girl (Maria) and an Irish-Pole boy (Tony)—a rendition, that is, of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York. Written by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins, it was originally a musical staged on Broadway in 1957, winning two Tonys a year later. The 1961 film version, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, won ten Oscars (including Best Picture) and is one the highest-grossing musicals of all time, an American classic whose songs (“America,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” etc.) and dance sequences have been reproduced on countless high school theater stages and in sitcoms, movies, and music videos.
Wise and Robbins’s film has also been handedly criticized. Filmmaker and literary scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner reminds us that it is the most widely seen and exported U.S. account of Puerto Ricans as a people, a kind of “founding trauma” that haunts us with brown-faced actors, faux accents, and stereotypes of feisty women and clannish men prone to violence. Not all is so straightforward, of course. While Puerto Ricans are, at best, caricatured in the film, not all the stereotypes are demeaning. Indeed, one could do worse than be associated with a Shakespearian tragedy and the inventive beauty of Bernstein’s music and Robbins’s choreography. To reckon with West Side Story, then, is to reckon with a deeply ambivalent artifact.
We are told that the remake makes amends. It boasts an “authentic” Latinx cast and creatives who, albeit white, consulted an expert “advisory board” and held town hall panels in Puerto Rico. It even credits the renowned Puerto Rican actress and dancer Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 film, as one of its executive producers, in addition to casting her in the role of Valentina. Add to this the aura of an auteur legend (Spielberg), and you have the prospect of a rekindled classic, one that “relives the magic” of the original while simultaneously ascribing to a more “inclusive Hollywood.”
Most critics have thus far endorsed it in more or less those terms. Justin Chang at NPR called the remake “both an affectionate tribute and a gentle corrective.” Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal deemed it a “pulsing, exultant musical,” and Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian a “visually staggering revival.” Such reviews have tended to stress the film’s aesthetics, with reverential nods to Spielberg, the gorgeous costumes, the smart cinematography, and a cast that can capably sing and dance. It is a welcomed bonus that there are “authentic” Latinx actors in this version. Brian Lowry at CNN, while not as enthused as other critics, reassures us that it passes the why-bother-with-a-remake test, if only because Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita are “positively luminous.” This, too, is a trend. The actresses—talented and stunning—have been featured in interviews that help market the film’s woke credentials. Most of these interviews, such as that at Time with Lola Ogunnaike, tout the “need to be in the room” and “historic firsts,” a narrative that runs from Rita Moreno’s Oscar to Zegler as a bona fide Latina Maria and DeBose as an Afro-Latina Anita. Presumably in celebration of all this, the film has received eleven Critics Choice and seven Oscar nominations.
But not everyone is pleased, least of all Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, those with the highest stakes in the film’s representational politics. A number of New York-based critics and intellectuals have found little-to-nothing redeemable in the remake. Writer Carina del Valle Schorske insists that it has outlived its relevance: “Let ‘West Side Story’ and its stereotypes die.” In a New York Times-sponsored debate, she summarized her hopes for the remake: “I want it to flop so we can move on.” Anthropologist and cultural critic Arlene Dávila, founder of the Latinx Project at New York University, was livid. With a headline in El Nuevo Día that cried out “Basta” (Enough!), Dávila reminded her readers how dramatically underrepresented Latino/as are on screen and behind the scenes. Although they comprise 19 percent of the U.S. population, Latino/as constitute little more than 2 percent of leading roles in top-grossing films between 2009 and 2019—most of those roles going to Cameron Diaz, who is neither visibly Latinx nor plays Latinx roles. Not much better, they make up 4 percent of directors, insofar as you include directors from Spain, who account for nearly one-third of that statistic. Our stories are still prey, as Dávila puts it, to the industry’s “white imaginary.” Yarimar Bonilla, Director of the prestigious Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, in an op-ed for the New York Times voiced a similar discontent when she asked: “Was the point to make a film that speaks more authentically to a Latino public? Or one that non-Latinos would feel less guilty producing and consuming?” No other critic, however, has stated the issue quite as poignantly as has Negrón-Muntaner: “It’s as if Porgy and Bess (1959), another film based on a Broadway musical, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a 1967 (more) liberal take on interracial love, both written and directed by whites, would still be the defining Black-themed films ever made. From this point of view, even a ‘better’ West Side Story is a tragedy.”
At least among the Puerto Rican intelligentsia, then, the consensus is that this is a remake we neither needed nor asked for, a waste of talents and resources ($100 million from Twentieth Century Fox, to be exact) that could have been devoted to stories written and directed by Latino/as themselves. But that conclusion doesn’t tell us much about which stories we most need to see and hear, let alone how we could or should tell them. It’s no coincidence, in this regard, that Bonilla used her op-ed to recommend Juan C. Dávila Santiago’s Simulacros de Liberación (2021), a documentary about grassroots resistance to the militarized police, vulture funds, and public divestments that plague the island. Spielberg’s remake comes at a time, after all, of cumulative crises on the island, not least its odious debt and a U.S.-appointed fiscal oversight board—known, colloquially, as la Junta. That Junta has pushed an austerity politics that attracts corporations and cryptocurrency millionaires in search of tax havens, while it shutters schools, hospitals, pensions, and state-owned enterprises. Compound this with the historic hurricane Maria in 2017, and you have an exodus from Puerto Rico that rivals, if not surpasses, that of the “great migration” of the 1950s. As the eminently quotable Negrón-Muntaner puts it, “In this context, when an actual turf war is causing the massive dispossession and displacement of Puerto Ricans, an update of West Side Story’s liberal message of ‘tolerance’ falls short.”
Nevertheless, much of the attention the film has received would lead us to believe that the major issue at stake is the presence (or lack) of cultural sensitivity, as though our most pressing concerns are the ascribed identities of actors and an ethnographically precise portrayal in U.S. cinema. Is it really that difficult to imagine a remake in which a plena and bolero are included and Maria is, for once, a Puerto Rican actress who is not phenotypically “white”—a remake, at that, written, directed, and choreographed by Latino/as? Would that be the film we most need?
It would depend, no doubt, on just how much the plot and motifs were reimagined, which raises other questions. Could we, for instance, as easily imagine a remake in which the Sharks are populist rabble rousers rather than aspirational “immigrants”? A remake in which the climactic “rumble” is a tenant’s strike and standoff with the police and real estate tycoons, not the Jets? Or what about a remake in which the Sharks aren’t the Sharks, but the Young Lords, who, alongside the Black Panthers, occupy the UN General Assembly hall and call for a citizen’s audit of debt not just in Puerto Rico but the Global South writ large? All of this, needless to say, would have to be stylistically gorgeous, with finger snaps, balletic high-toe kicks, and the Sharks/Lords dressed in vivid reds and purples as they perform a jazzy rendition of Pepe y Flora’s “Que Bonita Bandera,” the unofficial Nuyorican anthem. For that remake, I nominate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as Maria—or, better yet, as the Young Lord Iris Morales.
In all seriousness, the point is simple: Could we imagine a well-financed and -publicized remake that ascribes to such politics? A remake that associates radical redistributions of wealth and power with the beautiful—and not, as is customarily the case, with the hopelessly idealistic or militantly terroristic? When have such politics been portrayed with any dignity or desirability in U.S. cinema—let alone received Oscars? And when, if ever, have Puerto Ricans been depicted as a political vanguard?
This is not to contest that Spielberg’s and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s remake confers a certain cinematic grandeur onto Puerto Ricans. To see people who look and talk like us depicted as graceful and proud in a high-profile movie provides some solace. We could applaud, too, the deliberate choice to omit English subtitles as well as offensive lyrics about Puerto Rico in the “America” song (for example, “let it sink back in the ocean”).
But it is no small irony that the original has more social and political bite than the more “woke” remake. Spielberg’s reimagining of the Jets as “dysfunctional” white nationalists reinforces the very pathologizing that the song-scene “Officer Krupke” so boisterously (and brilliantly) parodies. The Jets serve, thereby, as the convenient foil to a more inclusive United States—as if lumpen proletariat “delinquents” (not vulture funds, banks, multinational corporations, billionaires, militarized police, the Pentagon etc.) were the juggernauts holding us back from sovereign power and more equitable and sustainable prosperity. Nor does the remake let us revel in the Sharks’ sly “fuck you” to the bigoted police officer Lt. Schrank, as they walked out of Doc’s store sarcastically whistling the tune “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” That scene is nowhere to be found in the remake. We might even say that the Greek-American actor George Chakiris sang his lines in the “America” song—“everywhere grime in America . . . terrible time in America”—with more bravado and conviction than does the Cuban-Canadian actor David Alvarez in the 2021 remake. The original’s “hard-hitting” content was not lost on 1960s audiences, including the Kennedy administration, which, according to film scholar Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, warned Wise that the film might “lend itself to exploitation by the Communists.”
That said, the remake’s hopes to shed light on “what’s happening at the borders” are fanciful at best. Not only because Puerto Ricans are (since 1917) U.S. citizens by birth, but because the film’s white nativists vs. immigrants of color schematic offers no real insight into why Latino/as have come to the United States in such remarkable numbers over the past two decades. Any such account would have to reckon, as Juan González’s Harvest of Empire (2011) does, with the history of U.S. immigration, trade, and foreign policy throughout the Americas, a medley of affairs that includes NAFTA, CAFTA-DR, PROMESA, and the Cuban embargo—to say nothing of U.S.-sanctioned coups. As Latino/as so often chant at rallies for their human rights, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” and “We’re here because you were there!”
As it stands, however, the remake keeps in place presumptions that Latino/as come to the United States in search of “better opportunities.” Or better put, it keeps in place presumptions that Latino/as are fleeing poverty, dictators, and narco-states without any account of the U.S. State Department’s and U.S.-based corporations’ heavy hand in the fabrication of such deplorable conditions—deplorable enough to make multitudes risk that treacherous trek across borders. Rather than illuminate these issues, the film essentially tells us that, were it not for racist bigots, we’d all have our fair shot at the “American dream.” Spielberg and Kushner endow the Sharks with “a trajectory to success in life,” each with their own dreams: Maria wants to go to college, Bernardo to become a professional boxer, Anita to own her own business, and Chino to become an accountant. Hard-working, family-oriented, Christian, and entrepreneurial, the Sharks are the allegorical equivalent to a “model minority”. This is akin to the rhetoric conservatives use to secure Asian American and, increasingly, Latino/a votes—and not far off from that used by liberals to counsel “at risk” youth in high school auditoriums throughout U.S. “ghettos” and barrios.
The Jets, by contrast, are a repugnant ensemble of recidivist and downwardly mobile (ethnic) whites. Lacking families, homes, and jobs, they (not the Sharks) have abandoned any hopes of the American dream. Some critics have brought attention to the opening scene of the wrecking ball in order to vet the film as a critique of gentrification. Lt. Schrank even tells the Jets and Sharks that their “turf war” is senseless, since the Jets will be displaced and the Sharks left as doormen to the new luxury condos of Lincoln Square. But this never amounts to more than mere “setting.” The movie’s thinly veiled solution is a Rodney King-style plea: “Can we all just get along?”
The message of West Side Story 2021 is thus to let these historically marginalized (and foreign) “others” enjoy the American dream, too. As Ariana DeBose, who is indeed spectacular as Anita, avowed in an interview: “The dream of success has to be able to be wrapped up in these [BIPOC, queer, et. al.] packages.”
But what if the problem is the American dream itself, not that some are denied it? What if it remains fictional not because it’s been withheld from marginalized communities, but because it cannot be universalized? One look at the ecological price paid by “the American way of life”—whether here or among the emergent affluent classes of the Global South who mimic our madness (not least in China and India)—should suffice.
A film that does not problematize this array of issues leaves intact the fiction that the United States is a “land of opportunity” thanks to the providential wonders of the so-called “free market”—not subsidies, debt, embargoes, coups, and a reckless disregard for the environment. Left as such, “immigrants” are, at best, resourceful people who come from nations (or “races”) that can’t quite get a handle on the mysteries of the “invisible hand”—rather than people who are structurally displaced by neoliberal policies and the U.S.-backed governments that violently enforce them.
West Side Story teaches us that while critiques of racism and calls for a more “inclusive” American dream have a “seat at the table” in Hollywood cinema and among its professional critics, critiques of capitalism and U.S. imperialism do not. This leaves us to endorse an art and politics that promises a more “progressive” future insofar as Hollywood, Congress, academia, corporate America, and even the Pentagon and CIA hire a proportionate number of professionals who identify as BIPOC, women, queer, trans, disabled, Muslim, etc. At least West Side Story is a tragedy—that is to say, more realistic!
While West Side Story may not “die” anytime soon, we can at least “euthanize” film criticism that would have us believe the ascribed identities of actors, writers, and directors—or a film’s “cultural competence”—are our best criteria for judgment. Let’s demand films that move, edify, and embolden us to more than just symbolically redress the tragedies of our times.
Éric Morales-Franceschini is Assistant Professor of English and Latin American Studies at the University of Georgia. He is author of Autopsy of a Fall, winner of the 2020 Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize, and The Epic of Cuba Libre: The Mambí, Mythopoetics, and Liberation (University of Virginia Press, 2022). His reviews, essays, and poetry have been published at AGNI, Tropics of Meta, Newfound, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Comparative Literature, Berkeley Poetry Review, Muzzle, Acentos Review, and Kweli, among others.
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