There is no doubt that Steven Spielberg’s 2021 West Side Story tried to please. Based on the controversial 1957 Broadway show of the same name, the film recounts how tensions between two gangs—the all-white Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) and Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (David Alvarez)—unleash a tragic end to the love between Tony (Ansel Elgort), a Polish-American boy, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), a Puerto Rican girl.
Aware of the story’s troubled reception with Latinxs, Spielberg continually assured the public before the film’s release that he had corrected what screenwriter Tony Kushner called the 1961 version’s “mistakes.” For critics, such errors included blatant stereotypes of Latinxs as gang members or hypersexual spitfires, white (and Puerto Rican) actors in brownface, and exaggerated accents. With this strategy, Spielberg aimed to solve a growing cultural tension around West Side Story—that many Latinxs, the nation’s largest ethnic group and utmost movie consumers, consider the nation’s most beloved musical on racial tolerance to be racist.
To preserve the musical’s canonicity and authority, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner built on prior attempts, particularly that of Arthur Laurents, the librettist of the original show. In his 2009 Broadway revival, Laurents sought to update the story to fit contemporary sensibilities and create a more authentic representation of Puerto Ricans, in part by incorporating Spanish-language lyrics and dialogue. Although Laurents was not entirely successful—the production dropped the majority of the Spanish portions five months into the revival—he left a roadmap for later.
The Spielberg-Kushner team, however, went much further than Laurents. As many observers have noted, Spielberg organized a town hall in Puerto Rico and enlisted Latinx historians, archivists, and musicians to provide feedback. Kushner expanded the use of Spanish, wrote in Puerto Rican symbols, and dropped the most derogatory lines of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, including that Puerto Rico should “sink back in the ocean.” Kushner even killed off the character of Doc, the Jewish shopkeeper and emblem of decency, replacing him with a new character named Valentina, expressly created for actress Rita Moreno. Hailed a “national treasure” in both Puerto Rico and the United States, Moreno had played Anita in the 1961 version, earning her an Academy Award, the first-ever awarded to a Latina performer.
For a moment, Spielberg and Kushner’s efforts appeared to pay off. After seeing advance screenings, the vast majority of critics, peers, and fans called the film “stunning,” “practically perfect,” “a miracle.” Once the movie hit the theaters, the praise kept coming. Despite a meager $10.5 million box office on opening weekend and to-date unknown streaming figures, the Hollywood establishment showered the production with award nominations. Shortly after its release, it had already won three Golden Globes, including for Best Musical or Comedy. Four months later, the film had earned eight additional awards, and close to thirty nominations at home and abroad.
Yet, numerous Latinxs—the avowed target for Spielberg’s discourse—decried this new West Side Story as inauthentic. They declared that it could not be “saved,” should ideally “flop,” and ought to be “left in the past, where it belongs.” This response was predictable—and inevitable.
To start, it is impossible to represent a universally accepted “authentic” experience. There is also no consensus about what the “mistakes” of the past are or how to address them. As Brian Eugenio Herrera noted, since 1957, many Latinx view the problem with West Side Story and its adaptations as one of systemic racism at the level of text (stereotyping and story) and context (cultural appropriation and inability to access self-representation). However, continuing a different tradition of interpretation which regards West Side Story as an aesthetic achievement, Spielberg and Kushner saw the main issue as one of updating an old masterpiece to the times. From this perspective, what is wrong is not the story’s racializing logic, or commodification of the “other,” but, instead, that Puerto Ricans have a real culture that has not been duly shown on-screen.
Accordingly, Spielberg proceeded to remedy the mistakes. One of the most touted strategies was to cast Latinx characters “authentically.” This meant that in contrast to the previous film, which hired white actors in brownface in two of the three leading Puerto Rican roles, Spielberg enlisted Latinx from diverse backgrounds—Polish Colombian, Cuban, Venezuelan—to portray Puerto Ricans. To ensure they would pass, the production hired a legion of vocal and acting coaches to guarantee the cultural authenticity of the actors’ accents in Spanish.
To Air Is Human
Given the scandalously limited opportunities for Latinxs in Hollywood to access so-called universal (white) roles, a good number of Latinx, including critics, lauded this decision. But if the idea was to make the characters “more” Puerto Rican, the effort failed its own authenticity test. Only Moreno speaks a recognizable Puerto Rican variant while most other actors slip into their own national drawl; a discerning ear can immediately tell that David Alvarez speaks with a Cuban cadence. Furthermore, the pan-Latino medley raises the question of why do all the Sharks even have accents given that most presumably arrived to New York as children. At the end, the fixation on accents had little to do with representing Puerto Ricans “authentically.” Rather, it continued the Hollywood practice of signifying the racial otherness and cultural foreignness of Latinxs through their presumably deviant forms of spoken English.
Spielberg and Kushner also attempted to redress the public’s concerns by individuating the lead characters, endowing them with specific traits and dreams. Ironically, as the creators did not shift their understanding of what the characters signify or how they drive the story, the strategy thickened rather than unsettled their stereotypical makeup. This outcome suggests that stereotyped knowledge cannot be simply corrected; it is a dye that may fade or morph, yet, never entirely goes away. It likewise reveals that stereotyped knowledge are not simply flaws of most West Side Story adaptations, but, instead, their very terrain of signification.
A key example is Maria, who is now a modern Puerto Rican girl with sexual agency. In contrast to the old Maria, the new one kisses Tony (Ansel Elgort) in seconds. After Tony kills Bernardo, Maria has sex with him, and they spend the night together. When Tony wakes up the next day, Maria orders him “to come back to bed.” In this hyper racialized take on amour fou, the movie keeps the prior characterization of Maria as a virginal “beautiful señorita” stereotype. At the same time, the film also infuses it with its opposite, “the hot tamale” type, which casts Latinas as overemotional, impulsive, and (boy) crazy. Either way, Maria’s presumed agency is irrelevant to the story’s unfolding.
But perhaps the most complex example is that of Anita (Ariana DeBose), Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s protector. In a move that has spared him the wrath that met Jon Chu and Lin Manuel-Miranda for hiring light-skinned actors to play nearly all leads in In the Heights (2021), Spielberg made history by casting an Afro–Puerto Rican actress to play Anita.
No doubt, DeBose’s casting propels Afro-Latinas from the back to the front of the frame. The choice nevertheless preserves the practice of casting light-skinned actors as leads and Black actors as supporting, particularly in Latinx-themed stories, reinforcing the notion that normative Latinx identity is “mestizo.” Moreover, although Zegler’s Maria now has carnal desires, the lighter-skinned actress still embodies the sexually inexperienced character—the essence of “beautiful innocence and naivety,” according to one recent reviewer—while the darker-skinned actress plays the “knowing, sexual and sharp.” Such distinctions leave the white/spiritual and Black/carnal binary intact. The idea of a Puerto Rican Black Maria, beautiful and knowing, remains impossible.
Stereotyped knowledge cannot be simply corrected; it is a dye that may fade or morph, yet, never entirely goes away.
Stereotypes are not the only difficulty plaguing Spielberg’s cultural authenticity vow. To make the characters more credible, the film also includes political symbols such as the Puerto Rican flag, the revolutionary anthem “La Borinqueña,” and a quote by Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos: “La Patria es valor y sacrificio” (The motherland is courage and sacrifice). The most obvious complication here is historical incongruity—these practices were not prevalent until the late 1960s. However, the larger issue is that for numerous viewers, these referents signify not cultural specificity but the brutal effects of US colonial power over Puerto Ricans.
During the 1950s, Puerto Ricans did not usually display or paint flags on public spaces in the United States. Most people likely refrained out of fear of being labeled anti-American separatists or communists, and, therefore, suffering persecution, unemployment, and other forms of marginalization. Affiliating with Albizu Campos could also lead to FBI surveillance, arrest, or death—as Albizu experienced. (In fact, if Bernardo was an Albizuist, one would have to ask who the FBI informants were, and whether the rumble was their doing.) By rallying these symbols to the cause of cultural authenticity, the film then trivializes decolonial histories. Abandoning them as the story progresses further shrouds that Puerto Ricans are not immigrants but US colonial migrants, their massive migration a direct outcome of the US empire. It, likewise, frames the Sharks’ presence as a “problem” of multicultural tolerance rather than racial capitalism and colonialism.
Yet, perhaps the biggest reason the adaptation did not resonate is that the multiple introductions of cultural markers are a smokescreen for the text’s most significant shift—its deeper investment in heteronormative whiteness. For all its political limitations, the 1961 creators used Puerto Rican bodies for substantially different ends: as a means to envision an “impossible” Jewish queer desire that included Latinx men, and explore what Daniel Pollack Pelzner called the “anxiety of Jewish assimilation, closeted sexuality, and the McCarthy blacklist.” The liberal politics of Spielberg-Kushner’s version are considerably more conservative at multiple levels.
For instance, Spielberg has stated that a “reimagining” of West Side Story was timely, because it would help to redress the racial divisions in US society stoked by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Still, the core anxiety that structures this narrative is not the conflict between Jets and Sharks per se nor the toxic impact of anti-immigrant discourse and policies. Instead, the new version focuses on the impact of changing demographics on the future of white masculinity. If the 1961 film’s existential question for its white protagonist was “are you afraid” to cross the color line for love, the 2021 adaptation poses a very different one to its two white male leads. It asks: “what do we do now” that white men are “outnumbered” by immigrants and “thousands are on the way.”
In this iteration, the fundamental struggle is not Riff (Mike Faist) against Bernardo but Tony against Riff. Refusing Riff’s desperate plea to “come to the dance with me” and fight the Latin men for lost turf, Tony offers another option: “to do like Doc” and “find me a Puerto Rican girl.” From Tony’s point of view, despite the flashy machismo of the men, Latinx immigrants may actually have something (poor) native-born whites don’t possess. Apart from loving families and a lively culture, they also have beautiful hardworking women. The “solution” for the average (white) man is then to re-embrace liberal politics, the American Dream, and middle-class values. As Tony tells Riff, you should “work for a living.”
In other terms: in arguing with Bernardo at the rumble, Tony and Riff claim that the struggle to conquer the Sharks is “not about skin … it’s about territory.” But the narrative, in fact, implies the opposite—that it is actually through skin that white men could get some of the territory back. Relying on centuries-old colonial tropes, the film’s romance codes white men as “Americans” and Puerto Rican women as immigrants to propose the only way out: drop the knife and marry the lighter-skinned girls. This is, of course, not a new idea. It was a highly efficient way for Anglo male settlers to grab land and power in the nineteenth century from the Mexican elites in the former Mexican territories of what is now the US Southwest.
When the Vibe Is Off
Knowingly, it is Rita Moreno, playing the new character of Doc’s widow Valentina, that most forcefully articulates the film’s sexual, gender, and racial politics. As usual, Moreno delivers a memorable performance, including the funniest line in the entire movie. When Tony asks her how to say “I wanna be with you forever” in Spanish for his date with Maria, she quips, “You don’t want to start maybe with ‘I like to take you out to coffee’?” However, Valentina’s character is not fundamentally about employing comedy as critique. Rather, she is muse, translator, and guard for a social order, where (good) white heterosexual men may no longer be the majority of American men, but they are still forgiven, desired, and at the center of the story.
Valentina serves this vision well. Although a Puerto Rican elder, she does not mentor any Latinx youth. Instead, Valentina lavishes her attention on Tony, whom she considers the neighborhood boy with the most “promise.” In addition to housing and employing Tony, Valentina acts as his guardian angel, keeping the love of “trashy” white characters such as Riff away so he can “keep looking for better.” Staring into Tony’s eyes, Valentina doubles Maria’s adoring gaze and multiplies Tony’s worth.
Significantly, the white-enhancing gaze of characters of color is a distinctive element of Spielberg and Kushner’s previous work in films such as Lincoln (2012). In Lincoln, supporting Black characters, including the president’s attendant, consistently express their gratefulness to whites with loving looks that amplify the camera’s gaze. Through this device, West Side Story offers a brown variant of the Magical Negro stereotype. If the Magical Negro helps whites become better people, the magical Rican keeps whites from erring through their angelic presence. This is evident in numbers such as “Something’s Coming,” which now features Tony dancing with Valentina while he sings “there’s a miracle … coming to me.” The miracle is, of course, Maria, Valentina’s double.
This is not to say that the character of Valentina can be solely understood in these terms. It is unprecedented that Valentina, a Puerto Rican woman, holds such authority in a major West Side Story adaptation. It is also a form of narrative justice that she gets to stop the Jets from raping Anita given that it was Moreno on the ground in 1961.
In the end, the miracle that Spielberg and Kushner may have inadvertently performed was to make it evident to more people than ever before that there is no such thing as a “timeless classic.”
At the same time, Valentina primarily deploys her considerable authority to underscore the nobility of whiteness and its justice. Standing in for her dead husband, Valentina stops the Jets’ assault on Anita with greater force than Doc. Yet, Valentina lets the boys go with a scolding that carries no consequences: “You have grown into rapists, you dishonor yourselves, you dishonor your dead.” Taking the place of Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll)—a figure hated by both Sharks and Jets—Valentina even spares the cops the need to investigate Tony’s death. Instead of comforting Chino (who shot Tony), finding him a lawyer, or hiding him from danger as she does for Tony, Valentina makes a citizen’s arrest. She picks up the gun from the floor, takes Chino’s arm, and holds him in place until the new Lt. Schrank arrives.
The film’s devastating finale further highlights its regressive politics. After showing that interracial marriage “works” as a liberal solution to white decline through Valentina’s marriage to Doc, the movie’s conclusion denies it to the next generation. Rejecting the possibility of different endings—Maria walks away before tragedy ensues, Tony survives the bullet, the gangs join forces to fight common problems—Spielberg and Kushner opt for the worst. They reiterate the 1957 show’s anti-miscegenation discourse as well as Chino’s sacrifice to the prison-industrial-complex of the 1961 version.
Equally important, the story’s closure underscores the idea that not even the sum of tragedies befalling other characters—the deaths of Bernardo and Riff, Anita’s assault, and Chino’s arrest—have equal weight to Tony’s death. In this telling, the tragedy is not about impossible love or the effects of racism but the fear that in America there is no longer room for the noble white man. At this rate, the good ones will end up dead at the hands of angry immigrants with guns provided by white supremacists.
Ultimately, this is why, Spielberg and Kushner’s gamble on authenticity could not persuade many viewers that they had repaired the “original.” Textually, the main issue is not that their historical or cultural references were inauthentic per se. Instead, it is that they were inconsequential to the narrative’s logic, politics, and point.
Contextually, although West Side Story may not have the same cultural authority it once enjoyed, the current version’s considerable industry recognition also underscored that its makers still have much more power than its critics. And perhaps the best recent example of these asymmetries is the attempt by the UNIVERSES art collective Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp to write a sequel to West Side Story called Maria. This new musical, Sapp explained in a November 17 video, would be about, “What happened to that young woman, Maria, after she walks out of the park, after Tony has been murdered? What is her life like?” Yet, the project was not to be: the Arthur Laurents’s estate “unequivocally denied” the team the right to make a sequel. Evidently, although Puerto Ricans may continue to talk back to West Side Story, it does not belong to them.
The legacy of this latest West Side Story will then be as mixed as the first, but in quite different ways. While Latinx critique did not reshape the story’s core, the Spielberg-Kushner version registers the impact of decades of analysis. Its release at a moment of heightened awareness about US colonialism in Puerto Rico and greater Latinx political power, also made it possible for intellectuals, journalists, and artists to access the nation’s top media platforms to articulate their views. Furthermore, the film’s immediate impact on the careers of some of the Latina cast suggests that they will not have Rita Moreno’s fate after she won the Oscar—repeated offers to portray the same role in even less supported and compelling movies. Rachel Zegler is now starring as Disney’s Snow White, and Ariana DeBose, who earned an Oscar for her portrayal, quickly leaped into the Marvel universe.
In the end, the miracle that Spielberg and Kushner may have inadvertently performed was to make it evident to more people than ever before that there is no such thing as a “timeless classic.” There are countless other ways to “live in America,” and it’s time for America—and the world—to see them.
Goodbye, West Side Story.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.