Can Spielberg’s West Side Story ease 50 years of Puerto Rican hurt?

West Side Story
West Side Story Credit: Amblin/Fox

The Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim classic took Romeo and Juliet to the mid-century streets of Manhattan, winning acclaim and awards in the process. Fifty years on, though, West Side Story’s problematic presentation of Puerto Rican communities has made the musical a contentious offering – something Steven Spielberg has encountered while remaking the film for a contemporary audience. 

In recent years, the 1961 movie of West Side Story has come under fire for its problematic approach to race. The film has been accused of perpetuating Latino stereotypes and white washing a tale of Puerto Rican immigration.

As part of his attempt to modernise his version of the movie, Spielberg went to speak at a town hall event with the University of Puerto Rico students and faculty. He spoke to the audience about his forthcoming remake, explaining, “the reason we’ve hired so many Puerto Rican singers and dancers and actors, is so they can help guide us to represent Puerto Rico in a way that will make all of you and all of us proud.”

But will Spielberg be able to steer clear of controversy? In many ways, he’s already corrected the issues that occurred with the previous film by ensuring that the Puerto Rican roles will be played by actors of Latino heritage. In the first glimpse of the upcoming release (a picture of the cast was revealed on Monday) it was obvious that Spielberg had made an effort to diversify the cast. 

Maria, who was portrayed by Natalie Wood in the 1961 film, will be played by an unknown 17-year-old actor called Rachel Zegler. Commenting on her casting, Zegler said, “West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.”

Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in West Side Story Credit: Film Stills

The original movie, which starred a majority-white cast, made the actors wear brown makeup. Rita Moreno, one of the few Puerto Rican actors in the film, spoke about the practice of darkening the actors’ skin tones in 2017.

“We all had the same color makeup, it was a very different time,” she revealed, to the shock of many.

“I remember saying to the make-up man one day – because it was like putting mud on my face, it was really dark and I’m a fairly fair Hispanic – and I said to the make-up man one day ‘My God! Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish...’ And it’s true, we are very many different colors, we’re Taino indian, we are black some of us.”

Moreno, who was hired by Spielberg as an actor and an executive producer on the new version of West Side Story, said that her comments elicited accusations of racism from the makeup artist. 

While Spielberg can easily abandon something as terrible and cosmetic as “brown face”, other issues with the musical are more deeply entrenched.

The Puerto Rican characters in West Side Story do, in some ways, perpetuate stereotypes that make the lives of Latino immigrants that much harder. The characterisations do little to counter the cliché of the fiery Latina woman, or the all-to-common depiction of Latino men as gangsters.

"The Sharks" in West Side Story

While Spielberg thinks the timing of his new release is apt – he argues that it “speaks a lot to what’s happening today in terms of what’s happening at the [US] borders” and that “it’s very relevant today to essentially the rejection of anyone who isn’t white” – others may feel that it ushers a number of dangerous, dated stereotypes into modern cinema.

One of West Side Story’s most loved songs is also perhaps its biggest source of controversy. America, written by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, contains the lyric, “Puerto Rico / My heart’s devotion / Let it sink back in the ocean.”

It continues, “Always the hurricanes blowing / Always the population growing / And the money owing / And the sunlight streaming / And the natives steaming.”

The song, despite its rousing tune, enforces a negative, stereotypical one-dimensional perception of Puerto Rico as a country. It’s difficult to see how Spielberg and co. will circumvent potential controversy in their remake, without rewriting swathes of Sondheim’s lyrics.

Rita Moreno in West Side Story Credit:  REX/Moviestore Collection

The song America encompasses one of the most significant problems with the original film. Mario Alegre, a Puerto Rican film critic who attended the town hall meeting with Spielberg, told The Hollywood Reporter: “The musical always presented it like, ‘Screw the island. I love America.’ But every time there’s been a massive migration from Puerto Rico, it’s been over economic austerity. The musical never explained that it was out of necessity.”

Isel Rodriguez, a theatre history and acting professor at the University of Puerto Rico, who also attended the town hall meeting, agreed. “No one leaves this island without sobbing,” she explained.

“Three hundred thousand people left the island after Maria and the scene at the airport was like a funeral. No one wants to leave. This is paradise.”

The question now is whether Spielberg’s remake will be able to do justice to its Puerto Rican characters, or if the film will make the same mistakes as its predecessor.

West Side Story is due to be released on 18 December 2020.