As we get closer to Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2020) revival, let’s take a moment to discuss what we don’t want back from the original film. This musical — written, produced, and directed by white North Americans — first premiered on Broadway (1957) and depicted a Shakespearean adaptation where Romeo and Juliet become Tony and María. The modern day romance shows Tony as a previous member of the Jets, a Polish-American gang, and as a result, rival to the Sharks, a Puerto Rican-American gang whose leader happens to be María’s brother.
Due to its success, the original New York based story has been brought back in many Broadway revivals as well as adapted into the original film (1961) and, for the first time, we will witness a film revival which will be released by December of this year (2020). Both on stage and the big screen, the spectacle has been acclaimed by critics and viewers as a groundbreaking tragedy, and received many awards.
But what’s beyond — or even under — all the bright costumes, dramatic choreographies, and exhilarating, semi-operatic scores that capture the audience’s attention?
By exoticizing Puerto Rican-American culture, the original film does exactly what it tries to criticize. West Side Story’s (1961) mise-en-scène is built on a simplified, monolithic U.S. understanding of Latinidad. All design aspects of the film, from actors to props to composition to costumes and makeup, help further alienate Puerto Ricans who have migrated to the United States.
From a casting perspective, for instance, the directors’ decision to only hire white non-latinx/as/os, with the exception of Rita Moreno, shows the hypocrisy behind the show’s praised “liberalism” and “commentary on discrimination.” The original film refused to open space and provide job opportunities for a community that has been historically underrepresented in the media.
Instead, they imposed an exaggerated, forced accent and applied dark foundation on every person who portrays a Puerto Rican character, including the only Puerto Rican casted. Except Maria, of course, because she represents the “right” way to assimilate.
This becomes a clear sign of the use of both brown/black face and Spanish as indicators of “otherness” and “foreignness,” highlighting the racism of the film and dismantling its apparent message of inclusivity.
Given the majority of the new cast is latinx/a/o, we know for a fact that these past approaches to the original narrative are not making a comeback in Spielberg’s West Side Story (2020). But what about the songs and costumes that drive harmful storylines? When analyzing Puerto Rican female characters, there are many misogynist, racist stereotypes to unpack. The writers only develop the Puerto Rican women’s characters strictly in relation to men.
María’s freedom is policed by her brother and father throughout the story, where her only escape seems to be running away with Tony — an overused representation of the problematic white savior narrative. Her dresses play an important part in the construction of this plot. María’s white dress at the beginning of the film symbolizes she is still “pure” and innocent (before meeting Tony), working in complete contrast to the red dress she wears in the closing scene (after having sex with Tony).
And then we have Anita, who seems to represent the other side of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. She often wears colorful and more revealing dresses. This is especially emphasized on “Tonight,” where Anita’s part is way more sexual than Maria’s angelic lyrics and tone.
We can only hope Spielberg’s revival will drive away from defining women’s worth through their clothing as well as reconsider the lyrics of the musical, to say the least.
I am not trying to suggest that being excited about a West Side Story revival is wrong but rather that we have to be critical and advocate for a change of the original film’s problematic aspects. There shouldn’t be any more space for sexist and racist stereotypes of the latinx/a/o community in the media.