Re-Visiting West Side Story

Do I Really Need the Pain Again?

For me, re-visiting Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story was like re-visiting a family member whom you haven’t seen in ages and you don’t particularly like. You don’t really want to go, but you feel an obligation to family. Or in this case, the larger collective called Puerto Ricans. I don’t recall the exact moment that I watched the original, but fragments of it still lingered in my mind. This was the only film I ever watched in my early adulthood about people like me. Even back then, I understood the image presented was not positive.

My only way to understand that experience came from reading Tino Villanueva’s powerful book-length poem, “Scene from the Movie Giant. In that book, he explores his feelings and reaction watching the racist, anti-Mexican scene in that film as a teen. It’s a strange feeling, an enormous disconcerting disconnect. To see “you” represented on such a powerful medium and think “that’s not me.”

In college, some idiot would discover I was Puerto Rican and sing “I Like to Be in America.” Then there were the other microaggressions related to the film. All in the spirit of joking, of course. That awkward way some white folks attempt at finding common ground through othering you. Obviously, this was a film that for many Puerto Ricans like me did not sit well. Suddenly, here comes another version. I thought, do I really want to torture myself through two hours of this again?

Criticism Aside, It Was Actually Better

Surprisingly, re-visiting this West Side Story was not painful. In fact, Spielberg’s version presents a refreshing, complex narrative that fills many lapses in the original. These characters are not fifties cliched stereotypes but more realistic and grounded in historical context. They have back stories and motivations. In the case of the Jets, these are unacceptable, but genuinely and unfortunately human. The struggle between the Jets and Sharks is not solely attributed to young adults “just” being delinquents. The film implies the impact of poverty, gentrification, white flight and white supremacist ideology. (In Migrations, I take the same perspective on gangs with my story, “Rip & Reck Into That Good Light”). The cast is diverse and inclusive. Race and gender issues are not buried but highlighted.

There was an earnest attempt to accurately render the Puerto Rican experience in New York during the period. I’m sure that Rita Moreno, the Executive Producer, had something to do with this focus. Her input underscores the need to “be in the room where it happens.” (She also brings her usual commanding presence in her portrayal of Valentina). Equitable representation in film is impossible without participation, something I’ve written about previously in this blog. For example, the producers consulted with scholars at the Center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College for input. They updated and eliminated some of the offensive lyrics from the original score. They addressed language, always an issue with narratives about Latinx communities. The characters intertwined English with Spanish, as would be the case with many families in New York during the fifties. The film did not utilize subtitles for the Spanish dialogue, a move that reflects the ubiquitous nature of Spanish in the United States. This decision makes it clear to this reviewer that the producers wanted to imply that the use of Spanish was something integral and natural. That counters the argument made by some critics that Spanish and its derivative accents was again used as a way to “racialize” and make these characters appear foreign. Nothing says “foreign” to American audiences more than subtitles, and the film deliberately discarded them.

To criticize accents in the film seems to me facile. Handling accents in a Latinx film is complicated. If a film eliminates them completely, some critics criticize it for not being authentic. If it uses them then the filmmaker runs the risk of being labeled racist and the film “inauthentic,” whatever that means. Any given variation of Spanish will, in turn, have sub-variations: regionalisms, dialects, registers, and, yes, accents. Even in a small population like Puerto Rico’s, the discerning ear can pick up varying accents. What is this authenticity being demanded? But if a filmmaker, especially a white one, fails in replicating an accent perfectly, and or utilizes it any way considered non-racist, then the film has used accents in a racializing way. If this criticism aims at better accuracy and more forceful anti-racist use of language, we await the moment when a Latinx filmmaker tackles this sensitive issue. It requires an acute understanding of linguistics, a profound knowledge of United States’ racism, and the nuanced realities of Latinx racism. All of this from a post-colonial, decolonizing perspective. I wish them luck in taking up that challenge.

Similarly, I find problematic the criticism that this version’s full cast of Latinx actors raises the racist idea that Latinx communities are interchangeable. Back in 1997, Mexican Americans complained when Jennifer Lopez played Selena in the bio-pic. Does this mean that Latinx actors can only play characters from their own communities? This is a limitation that no white actor has. No one believes that casting British or Australian actors as Americans make them all interchangeable. I’d bet that most Latinx actors do not subscribe to this idea. Oddly, this argument racializes acting for Latinx actors as it attempts to uncover a film’s racialization.

Yeah, It’s Revisionist. Deal With It

For those who might criticize this film for its “revisionist” bent, I say: It’s about time. Revision is to “re-see” something in a new light. If we have to re-visit a film or any other cultural artifact from the past, then it behooves us to see it with new eyes. Knee-jerk attributes to “PC” and “cancel culture,” and uncritical accusations of “revisionist history” are smokescreens to hide the truth. Anyone who has studied the American history hidden under the rocks understands full well the rot lying there. Given the racist, gender and class biased narratives constructed in the mainstream cultural production in this country for centuries, it’s absolutely necessary to add what has been marginalized all those years. In other words, tell the truth. Any responsible cultural producer in the United States must do this if we want to move forward as a nation.

I commend Steven Spielberg and his team for giving an outdated storyline new relevancy. If anything, this version has sparked dialogue and discourse, always a good thing. Props to the director for the masterful storytelling. For adapting new cinematic vistas and cinematography to enhance the overall feel of the film. Tony Kushner took on a difficult project and the result, if not universally accepted, is a more sensitive, thoughtful adaptation. Thanks to the wonderful, talented cast for making this version more palpable for this Puerto Rican, who for decades suffered psychic scars from the original. Others contend that it is still not enough. I can’t disagree with that; but that a major filmmaker has taken this step forward is positive. We can only hope that others will follow.

Love: Someday, Somewhere

My major takeaway from this film: Hollywood ignores their responsibility to diversity and equitable representation at its own risk. The nation will only suffer if it does. Let’s remember that, at the end of the day, West Side Story is a tragic love story. That was the case with the original source—Romeo and Juliet—and the many permutations, including Spielberg’s. The hatred, violence, brutality, racism, and otherness at the heart of this film doesn’t detract from the love story. Indeed, it still highlights the desirable idea that in the midst of hatred, love is possible.

The film leaves you hopeful. That someday (somewhere) human beings will embrace and practice the true meaning of love. Not only two strangers gazing at each other for the first time, but strangers with seemingly unbridgeable differences between them. Perhaps it’s an idealistic, schmaltzy thought. But the absence of love surely can lead to chaos and destruction. The type we witness in this and every other version of Shakespeare’s epic play. The type we witness, with growing intensity, across America.

Photo: From cover of Laurent Bouzereau’s book, The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film, West Side Story.

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