The 2021 film’s unsubtitled Spanish dialogue helps, but it’s not enough.


Western coast Story was never meant to represent Puerto Rican communities. Its original creators Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents admitted this when they set out to tell a Romeo and Juliet New York based story. It was only too practical that the “Puerto Rican thing,” as Bernstein put it, “had just started to explode”, and thus provided a community on which the creators could support their 1957 Broadway musical. In fact, Sondheim even refused to work on the show at first, saying, “I’ve never been so poor and I’ve never even met a Puerto Rican.” In the 1961 film version, white actors were cast in two of Puerto Rican main roles: George Chakiris as Bernardo and Natalie Wood as Maria. Both were in brownface. It wasn’t until the revival of Broadway in 1980 that audiences saw Latinx performers in these roles expressly created for Puerto Ricans. Even then, according to Puerto Rican writer and filmmaker Frances Negron-Mutaner, the Puerto Rican actress chosen to play Maria had dark skin and hair for the role.

The musical and its seemingly endless Latinidad masquerades are steeped in controversy, and rightly so. Not less because Hollywood and Broadway continue to elevate him as the dominant representation of Puerto Rican communities in particular and Latinx communities in general, despite decades of criticism from Puerto Rican writers. In an essay on the 2020 Broadway musical revival, critic Carina del Valle Schorske wrote: “The United States has a constraint when it comes to West Side Story, reconstructing, over and over again, the primal scene of the colony’s foray into American consciousness, the “great migration” of Puerto Ricans to New York in the middle of the century. “

Ahead of Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s 2020 Broadway version, there was another musical revival in 2009, directed by the author of the musical’s original book, Arthur Laurents, to whom Puerto Rican In the heights designer Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed to the Spanish dialogue. Now Steven Spielberg is the last white creator to be forced to piece the show together once again. “It has never left my life,” he said earlier this month, mentioning how he spent his childhood playing both Officer Krupke and “all the Jets.”

In his attempt to resolve the glaring issues with the original, Spielberg began by hiring an all-Latinx cast to play the Sharks. (While this is a milestone, it’s important to note that two of the three main Puerto Rican characters, Maria and Bernardo, aren’t played by Puerto Rican actors.) He and screenwriter Tony Kushner also spend more time exploring sharks. and the Puerto Rican. community. Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita, for example, have career ambitions beyond the neighborhood for the first time, and many musical acts are now set in a bustling Puerto Rican neighborhood. Notably, the original film’s Anita, Rita Moreno, joined the project as an executive producer in order to push for better portrayal.

Perhaps the most striking of all the changes to the new film, however, is that it features a substantial amount of unsubtitled Spanish dialogue. Audiences first hear Spanish about 10 minutes into the film’s start, after following the all-white Jets as they dance and terrorize the Puerto Rican enclaves of a fast-bourgeois West Side. When they manage to get the Puerto Rican Sharks to fight with them in an abandoned lot, the two gangs are encountered by the police. Bernardo (the leader of the Sharks, played by Broadway’s David Alvarez) calls the cops’ hijos de putas’, to which a shark responds, ‘I’m not talking. [Spanish]. (The word actually used is an insult used prominently throughout the film.) Immediately, the film sets up a central conflict in its quest for ‘representation’ that will follow throughout. It is halfway between saying to its non-Spanish speaking audience that everything in the film will not be shown for their consumption and, on another level, pushing that audience to partner with the non-Spanish speaking Jets who, so far the film, have dictated how the audience is shown at the 1957 world in New York.

The lack of subtitles begins to accomplish a lot of what Spielberg hoped to do, in that it leaves the pure, unmediated Spanish dialogue through a gringo lens. It’s not “[give] English power over the Spaniards. But that masks the fact that the entire film and its portrayal of Puerto Rican communities is still inherently hyped by the story’s original white male creators, and now, by the film’s white director, white screenwriter, director of the film. white photography and mostly white producers.

Despite the remake’s claims to represent in a more authentic way the experience of Puerto Ricans in New York, the choice to leave the Spanish dialogue without a subtitle makes the few specifics of the immigrant experience with which the film addresses inaccessible to the non-Spanish speaking audience. . When Bernardo (David Alvarez) excludes Anita (the phenomenal Ariana DeBose) from her definition of “family”, she asks him if it’s because she is “una prieta” – dark skinned. With this scene, the film makes a passing commentary on the very real problem of colorism in Latinx communities in the United States and beyond, but this brief engagement with anti-noir is not available to audiences. Spanish-speaking, and the subject is not discussed. again. In this way, the unsubtitled Spanish feels more like an opportunity for Spielberg and his collaborators to tick a box for portrayal while refraining from meaningfully engaging with the way the film is, for its sound. white public, continues to defend the very stereotypes about the Puerto Rican community that it is meant to rectify.

A constant refrain in the new version is that the white authorities – the Jets, the cops, the host of the high school dance – are telling the Puerto Rican characters to speak English. Sharks grow back. When the police first tell Bernardo to stop speaking at the start of the film, for example, he wastes no time leading the rest of the gang in a performance of the Puerto Rican anthem, “La Borinqueña”, in using the original revolutionary lyrics from before the United States made Puerto Rico their colony and censored it.

Ethnic studies specialist Lorgia García-Peña said that “the daily acts of immigrants, such as speaking a foreign language in the public arena, often seek to gain space within the host country which tries to relegate them. on the outskirts “. It’s the job that the Sharks’ provocative Spanish faces in authority for much of the film.

But it’s also worth noting that Anita is one of the most prominent voices asking everyone around her to “speak English” for much of the film. “We have to practice,” she said to Bernardo and Maria at the kitchen table, suggesting that without her, none of the Puerto Rican characters would ever speak English at home. Because Spielberg’s decision to leave those moments without subtitles makes it impossible to have entirely Spanish conversations onscreen, Anita’s character is instead forced to arbitrate them and thus pushed further into her complex relationship with the assimilation and citizenship, dramatized in the most spectacular way in “America”. But while the film has had the opportunity to engage more deeply with the conflict between Anita’s hope for the United States and her eventual desire to return to Puerto Rico, it’s rather mired in the superficial formal constraints. to claim to represent Latinidad in a film obviously positioned towards a white audience and largely non-Spanish speaking. Anita’s relationship with the class and New York City remains relatively unexplored.

By making gentrification the real enemy at the heart of the remake – foregrounds inform us that the territory the gangs fight over is being cleaned up to make way for Lincoln Center – Kushner suggests the need for interracial solidarity and class. The Spanish dialogue and constant demands to speak English position the language difference as the main gap the Sharks and Jets must overcome in order to stand in solidarity against the state’s continued attack on the poor. But that’s only because the film chooses to ignore the role played by the blatant racism and white supremacist thinking that has characterized the Jets since the first time the film shows them interacting with the city. Rather than problematize this racism, the film excuses it. In a newly added scene, Reformed Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort) tells Maria (Rachel Zegler) that Riff, the leader of the Jets, considers himself an enemy of the Puerto Rican community because “the whole world has been against it. [him] since he was born. Although Maria is quick to respond that life hasn’t been much easier for her community, the film repeatedly confirms Tony’s original explanation. In a speech added to the new version, Corey Stoll’s Lt. Schrank exposes the Jets to the future of their post-gentrification neighborhood, where white “garbage” like them will be chased by “Puerto Rican doormen” to wealthy new residents.

Although the actions taken by Spielberg, Kushner and the rest of the West Side Story team are commendable, and indeed a step up from the shallow, racist and exploitative story of the musical, they ultimately don’t provide enough rationale to revive it in the first place, let alone another white creator. . The changes in the new version act as defenses against the necessary criticism of the musical and its flaws, rather than as a means to significantly challenge the legacy of West Side Story and the ethics of reproducing that heritage once again.


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