What Are Latino Audiences to Make of the New “West Side Story”?
If you’re a Latino, the movie “West Side Story” casts a long perpetual shadow. Is it okay to like the movie, even with its obvious cultural stereotypes and not so nuanced racism? Hey, but what about those immutably hummable songs? When we’re not thinking about more substantial things in our lives, images of Natalie Wood as Maria and Rita Moreno as Anita pop into your head. Hey, and the dancing was cool, wasn’t it? We kinda overlooked the fact that Natalie Wood wasn’t a Latina. Hey, but it’s a movie.
This has all come back to the recesses of my memory with the release of the new, Steven Spielberg version of “West Side Story.” Is it a commercial flop? I suppose the jury is still out on that aspect of the film. Is it less offensive to Latinos than the original movie and the Broadway musical? Many jurors have expressed a view and reached a verdict.
I first saw the original “West Side Story” at a time that now seems like it was the Pleistocene. It was 1961 when I was ten years old. Bobby Verdugo and I went to the Starland Theater on North Broadway in Lincoln Heights, on the eastside of L.A. I think it cost a quarter to get in and a bag of popcorn was a dime. Yeah.
Why did we go to the movies back then? To have a good time, of course. We would just show up at the movie house, buy a ticket and go in. We didn’t check in advance to see what was playing (we didn’t care) and we often waltzed in during the middle of the movie. We’d wait for the movie to show again and then we would leave when we got to the point when we said: “This is where we came in.” That’s how we happened to see “West Side Story” the first time. (Like practically everybody in this country, I’ve seen it on TV several times since then.)
Bobby and I were certainly no sophisticated film critics. We didn’t know anything about Broadway musicals. Up on the screen there’s a scene where someone is dying on the pavement. And what happens? The music swells and people start singing! Bobby and I couldn’t contain ourselves. We burst out laughing. Nobody would be singing like that in our neighborhood.
But we summoned our suspension of disbelief and we eventually sat through the whole movie. But we kept saying to each other: “Natalie Wood ain’t a Puerto Rican.” Even though, as mocosos Chicanos we didn’t really know what a Puerto Rican really was. We’d never met one.
At the start of the movie when the Jets are snapping their fingers and dancing on the sidewalk, Bobby and I just giggled. The whole idea of a singing/dancing spectacle on the gritty streets and sidewalks seemed pretty ridiculous to a couple of eastside L.A. kids. But we eventually went along for the ride. Again, we were not sophisticated audience members. We were at the movies for a good time. We walked out of the movie house satisfied that, over all, we had had a good time on a Saturday afternoon. Isn’t that what movies are for, especially when you’re a kid? Que más quieres?
Let’s take a look at the commercial success of this new version of the movie, or lack of it. And let’s look at the reviews. Okay, so the movie will soon be screaming – sorry, streaming—on the Disney+ platform. It’s still only in theaters. There’s no denying that the blast off of the movie around Christmas time was a gigantic disappointment for the producers of “West Side Story.” Most folks in the industry hoped it would be a blockbuster that smashed the Covid caution of movie goers and would herald a big, emphatic return to the multiplex, for the financial benefit of the industry. “West Side Story” was thought to be the vehicle to accomplish that. It was a big, razzle dazzle, big budget Hollywood spectacular that was gonna be a monster at the box office.
It wasn’t a box office success. In the calculus of Hollywood movies, it made pennies during its opening weekend in theaters. It has made a few pennies more in the eight weeks it been on the big screens. I mean, it reportedly cost 150 million bucks to make the flick. Again, you’ll be able to see it at home starting in a couple of weeks.
So, it’s a financial dud. And it’s a bit of a critical dud as well. Some reviews, such as the one in the New York Times, have been somewhat positive. But many others have been, shall we say?, lukewarm in their praise.
In The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody dismissed the film as a failed attempt to breathe new contextual life into the original 1961 version of the film. He suggests that director Steven Spielberg was trying to re-animate a corpse with the blood of young people. He writes: “With screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg has attempted to fix the dubious aspects of the 1961 film, including its cavalier depiction of Puerto Rican characters and its stereotypes of hardscrabble New York. But, instead of reconceiving the story, they’ve shored it up with flimsy new struts of sociology and psychology, along with slight dramatic arrangements.” The review goes on to slam the filmmakers for making ill-conceived and misguided revisions which end up making “West Side Story” a mess of a movie. So there.
But not all film critics slammed the new version of the star-crossed lovers tale—a story rooted in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times had praise for Spielberg’s new version. He called it “…a swirling fusion of literary sophistication and social concern, of playfulness and solemnity, of realism and fantasy, of street fighting and ballet.” Other reviews and opinion pieces have pointed out the good, the bad and the ugly of this new version. It should be remembered that this vehicle was created for the Broadway stage in 1957 and burst onto movie screens four years later to remarkable critical and box office success. At its core, it is a stage play, a Broadway musical, people. The film version won ten Oscars, including Best Picture and the Best Supporting Actress award by a very young Rita Moreno. In this new version Moreno plays the widow of the man who ran the drug store/soda fountain that was a hangout for one of the gangs. Her character, in some respects, is the conscience of the neighborhood. Moreeno brings a touch of poise, dignity and grace to the film. She’s also an executive producer.
But why even remake this cinematic icon? Apparently, a lot of movie fans have been asking themselves that very question. When this new “West Side Story” opened in theaters (only in theaters) people stayed away in droves, as the Borscht Belt comics would say. Ticket sales were anemic. Covid jitters certainly played a part. But it couldn’t be the whole story. “West Side Story” is scheduled for streaming on Disney+ in a few weeks.
We’ll see how many viewers are attracted to the movie, since they’ll be emancipated from the task of masking up and schlepping to the cineplex—they’ll be able to simply sit on the couch and reach for the remote. More people will be able to judge for themselves whether this movie succeeds or fails—on various levels. Will it captivate lots of folks with its razzle dazzle of singing and dancing? There can be no doubt that Spielberg has made a magnificent visual creation. The photography is stunningly imaginative and just beautiful, like a montage of great paintings in the Louvre or MoMA.
The choreography is breathtaking; much of the dancing is shot in innovative environments. And there ain’t no dancers like Broadway-trained dancers. Fine performances by the actors. And, what a concept, the Puerto Rican characters are played by actual Puerto Ricans! Lots of stuff for audiences to take in when the movie starts streaming.
But there are sure to be questions raised by folks sitting on the couch, munching microwave popcorn while seeing and hearing Maria sing “I Feel Pretty.” Especially Latinos watching the movie. Quite understandably, lots of Latino scholars and social/cultural observers have raised questions about this new version, as they have about the original “West Side Story.”
Can you say “cultural appropriation?” I knew you could – as Mister Rogers might say.
That was an issue with the original 1957 Broadway musical and the movie that came four years later. The origin of the piece has a trippy history – a history that’s relevant to the discussion about how Latinos i.e. puertoriqueños are depicted. Let’s face it: four Jewish guys – talented guys, no doubt–created “West Side Story.” At the start of the project they knew as much about Latinos as I know about the Torah. As journalist Ashley Lee details, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and a rookie lyricist named Stephen Sondheim were putting their heads together about how to do some sort of contemporary retelling of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy. At first the idea was to make it about rival communities in Brooklyn—Jewish versus Irish. It wasn’t coming together.
Then they read newspaper stories about some chingazos in, of all places, San Bernardino. There was an ugly clash between two Mexican American groups. Newspapers quickly dubbed it “street gang warfare.” Robbins and the rest of his team decided to make the Montagues versus Capulets-type clash a collision of teenage street gangs. They first thought of placing the action in California, but then they settled on the streets of New York City as the locale.
It was 1957, the era of social concern about “juvenile delinquents” and new waves of immigrants, including Puerto Ricans. (It’s always struck me as stupendously weird that Puerto Ricans are regarded as “immigrants” when they are automatically United States citizens.) “West Side Story,” the Broadway musical, was off and running – or off and dancing.
There is the perennial question about “Can someone authentically write about a group that he or she is not a member of?” Do you have to be Latino to write accurately and knowingly about Latinos, for example? It depends. In a related realm, writer Dee Brown wrote “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” a saga about the history of Native Americans. A stellar achievement and he’s not an indigenous person. But, on the other hand we have the fraud perpetrated by Dan James, a pedestrian writer from a wealthy, privileged white family. He wrote first-person short stories and novels using the pseudonym Danny Santiago. His work purported to be a gritty, honest and authentic exploration of the Chicano experience in East L.A. It was a sham.
But, back to the history of “West Side Story.”
Clearly, Spielberg was cognizant of the sexism and racism woven into the original movie. He took steps to avoid negative stereotypes and project strength and agency in the Puerto Rican characters in his version of the movie. For example, he includes a version of the rallying-cry song “La Borinqueña” that was sung before its lyrics were whitewashed. Spielberg includes a fair amount of Spanish in the film and consciously doesn’t have subtitles translating that dialogue into English. The goal is to give the Spanish language its own legitimacy, he has said publicly. But it still smacks a bit of putting lipstick on a pig.
The original blockbuster movie was in cinemas four years after the successful Broadway production. The cultural weirdness continued in the movie. It was an instant smash in 1961. Scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner at Columbia University has written succinctly: “The movie was the first major—and still the most widely seen and exported—U.S. cultural product to recognize Puerto Ricans as a distinct Latino group in the United States with specific physical characteristics (brown, dark-haired, svelte) and personality traits (loud, sexy, colorful).”
Negrón-Muntaner goes on to observe: “Drawing on centuries-old stereotypes about Latinos, the women are virginal and childlike or sexual and fiery; the men are violent and clannish. It widely popularized racist and sexist stereotypes that continue to shape how the world sees Puerto Ricans and how they see themselves.”
And much of what she describes applies to Chicanos and other Latino communities.
Is the new Spielberg version of “West Side Story” less stereotypical than the earlier iterations? Is it more “authentic” when it comes to Latino culture? That’s all quite subjective, of course. Here’s a perspective from Latino Rebels film critic Cristina Escobar. She writes, “It continues the original’s tradition of advancing a dangerous narrative as it offers Latinx people some important opportunities. In the end, it’s a film by and for white guys, and I’d rather watch something else.”
Well, I try to watch everything. Or at least a little bit of everything. I’m glad I saw this new “West Side Story.” I wasn’t overwhelmed with the totality of the experience. The look of the film is remarkable. The choreography and performances are something to be appreciated. But, as a whole, it just doesn’t hold up. Spielberg certainly knows how to make movies. But even he can make movies that don’t hit it out of the park.
And having so-called gang members prancing in the streets, snapping their fingers still seems a bit silly to me. But, then again, I’m not an ultra-sophisticated guy.
Copyright 2022 by Luis R. Torres. To contact Luis write: Luis.email@example.com. West Side Story poster and Latino Rebels log used under the “air use” provision of the copyright law. Photo of Starland Theater site copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other images in the public domain.