Oh, West Side Story. What are we going to do with you? You’re like our tío‘s first wife who won’t stop showing up at family functions. And here you are making this Christmas all about you.
To be fair, the 2021 film version, out December 10, features amazing performances by Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler as Anita and María respectively. And director Steven Spielberg is a household name because he knows how to deliver visually stunning movies that appeal to broad audiences. His West Side Story is just that—charismatic people, delightful visuals, movie magic.
If you watch film as Anita and María’s story, there’s plenty to enjoy. They took out the most offensive lines in “America,” and DeBose uses the number to radiate charisma, bringing the entire neighborhood into her playful teasing of David Alvarez’s Bernardo. Likewise, Zegler shines in her duets, her alto soaring with a mixture of naivety and the teen disposition for risk that’s perfect for the role. They both bring real human emotions to the film’s melodrama, particularly in the final heartbreaking moments. In the end, their bodies appear small and vulnerable on the big screen, but their presence and power determine the narrative. It’s great work and they should be applauded for it.
The problem, of course, is that this is not actually their film. West Side Story is about the men and their racial conflict—and I’m not sure that bit can be fixed, though Spielberg and screenplay writer Tony Kushner have tried to make it better. For one, they actually cast Latinx people to fill all the Puerto Rican roles. There’s a line at the beginning explaining that Puerto Rico is part of the United States—always a good reminder for gringo audiences. There’s more Spanish —and it’s not subtitled!— making the film both more realistic and pulling up a special chair for Latinx audiences. And the Doc character has been replaced by Rita Moreno as Valentina in a marked improvement.
But there’s only so much they can do with the source material. In 1961, the idea of Puerto Rican gangs beating up white kids contributed to the belief that brown people were naturally dangerous, a menace to be dispensed with. The 2021 version takes great pains to make the Sharks more sympathetic, giving Bernardo a strong backstory and mentioning multiple times that the Sharks all have jobs while the Jets rely on their whiteness to skate by. The police are firmly on the Jets’ side, rooting and empathizing with them even as they urge them to find better things to do than crime. But the Romeo and Juliet basis for the film fundamentally places the two groups on equal footing—and that’s a dangerous message for us today with white supremacy, violence, and discontent on the rise. I don’t think we need a film that “both sides” the situation.
I’d also argue that some of the nuances of the Latinx experience are missing. Again, points for trying I guess, but the white men at the helm didn’t quite get it. The accents, for one, are certainly dated and confusing—especially since executive producer Rita Moreno told In The Thick back in 2017 that Anita should have Rosie Perez’s Nuyorican accent, not the stereotypical fresh-off-the-boat one featured in the film. Did they just not listen to her? Should there perhaps have been more Latinx people giving creative direction? I think so.
Also, it is certainly a step forward to see Afro-Latinidad portrayed on such a big stage, and DeBose couldn’t have been better as Anita. Plus her Blackness isn’t ignored, with her asking Bernardo at one point if they’re not married because she’s “prieta“—that’s pretty smart. And yet, toward the end of the film, there she is urging María to pick “one of her own kind.” Whose kind exactly? Without some further explanation, that line, repeated throughout “A Boy Like That,” flattens Latinidad, pretending that our differences aren’t as significant as they really are, especially with the care taken earlier to portray Anita’s racial difference.
But the biggest problem for me is Ansol Elgort as Tony. He’s been credibly accused of sexual assault, by a minor no less, and watching him as the romantic lead in this film turned my stomach. María and Tony are supposed to have an age difference —there’s certainly a maturity difference— and with Elgort’s past, it was downright irresponsible for the filmmakers to release this version with him in the role. Not to mention, the story valorizes the idea that violent men just need the love of a good woman to change, and with a known abuser as the male lover, the whole thing devolves into a misogynistic fantasy. That Elgort also doesn’t have the range to show Tony as both a hopeless romantic and a man inclined toward deadly violence doesn’t help either. He’s just a dope with a good singing voice. They should have given his cardigan to someone else.
I grew up with West Side Story and love the songs. Hearing the first few notes was a rush, a welcome back to a missed alternate reality. But when I watched it as a kid, someone generally turned it off before the rape scene, and this West Side Story needs the same sort of editing to be enjoyed. It’s not just imperfect, it continues the original’s tradition of advancing a dangerous narrative even as it offers Latinx people some important opportunities. In the end, it’s a film by and for white guys, and I’d rather watch something else.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade