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West Side Story and the Tragedy of Progressive Hollywood

The verdict on Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story is still out. Is it faithful to the original? Is the original better? Should it have been more radically reimagined? Should it have been remade at all? These debates do at least tell us something about what, in our moment, constitutes the controversial and what passes as unremarkable. If we can illuminate that, then a discussion of the film is worth the trouble, even if the film itself is not.

For those unfamiliar, West Side Story is a musical about the ill-fated romance between a Puerto Rican girl (Maria) and an Irish-Pole boy (Tony)—a rendition, that is, of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York. Written by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins, it was originally a musical staged on Broadway in 1957, winning two Tonys a year later. The 1961 film version, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, won ten Oscars (including Best Picture) and is one the highest-grossing musicals of all time, an American classic whose songs (“America,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” etc.) and dance sequences have been reproduced on countless high school theater stages and in sitcoms, movies, and music videos.

Wise and Robbins’s film has also been handedly criticized. Filmmaker and literary scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner reminds us that it is the most widely seen and exported U.S. account of Puerto Ricans as a people, a kind of “founding trauma” that haunts us with brown-faced actors, faux accents, and stereotypes of feisty women and clannish men prone to violence. Not all is so straightforward, of course. While Puerto Ricans are, at best, caricatured in the film, not all the stereotypes are demeaning. Indeed, one could do worse than be associated with a Shakespearian tragedy and the inventive beauty of Bernstein’s music and Robbins’s choreography. To reckon with West Side Story, then, is to reckon with a deeply ambivalent artifact.

We are told that the remake makes amends. It boasts an “authentic” Latinx cast and creatives who, albeit white, consulted an expert “advisory board” and held town hall panels in Puerto Rico. It even credits the renowned Puerto Rican actress and dancer Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 film, as one of its executive producers, in addition to casting her in the role of Valentina. Add to this the aura of an auteur legend (Spielberg), and you have the prospect of a rekindled classic, one that “relives the magic” of the original while simultaneously ascribing to a more “inclusive Hollywood.”

Most critics have thus far endorsed it in more or less those terms. Justin Chang at NPR called the remake “both an affectionate tribute and a gentle corrective.” Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal deemed it a “pulsing, exultant musical,” and Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian a “visually staggering revival.” Such reviews have tended to stress the film’s aesthetics, with reverential nods to Spielberg, the gorgeous costumes, the smart cinematography, and a cast that can capably sing and dance. It is a welcomed bonus that there are “authentic” Latinx actors in this version. Brian Lowry at CNNwhile not as enthused as other critics, reassures us that it passes the why-bother-with-a-remake test, if only because Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita are “positively luminous.” This, too, is a trend. The actresses—talented and stunning—have been featured in interviews that help market the film’s woke credentials. Most of these interviews, such as that at Time with Lola Ogunnaike, tout the “need to be in the room” and “historic firsts,” a narrative that runs from Rita Moreno’s Oscar to Zegler as a bona fide Latina Maria and DeBose as an Afro-Latina Anita. Presumably in celebration of all this, the film has received eleven Critics Choice and seven Oscar nominations.

But not everyone is pleased, least of all Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, those with the highest stakes in the film’s representational politics. A number of New York-based critics and intellectuals have found little-to-nothing redeemable in the remake. Writer Carina del Valle Schorske insists that it has outlived its relevance: “Let ‘West Side Story’ and its stereotypes die.” In a New York Times-sponsored debate, she summarized her hopes for the remake: “I want it to flop so we can move on.” Anthropologist and cultural critic Arlene Dávila, founder of the Latinx Project at New York University, was livid. With a headline in El Nuevo Día that cried out “Basta” (Enough!), Dávila reminded her readers how dramatically underrepresented Latino/as are on screen and behind the scenes. Although they comprise 19 percent of the U.S. population, Latino/as constitute little more than 2 percent of leading roles in top-grossing films between 2009 and 2019—most of those roles going to Cameron Diaz, who is neither visibly Latinx nor plays Latinx roles. Not much better, they make up 4 percent of directors, insofar as you include  directors from Spain, who account for nearly one-third of that statistic. Our stories are still prey, as Dávila puts it, to the industry’s “white imaginary.” Yarimar Bonilla, Director of the prestigious Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, in an op-ed for the New York Times voiced a similar discontent when she asked: “Was the point to make a film that speaks more authentically to a Latino public? Or one that non-Latinos would feel less guilty producing and consuming?” No other critic, however, has stated the issue quite as poignantly as has Negrón-Muntaner: “It’s as if Porgy and Bess (1959), another film based on a Broadway musical, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a 1967 (more) liberal take on interracial love, both written and directed by whites, would still be the defining Black-themed films ever made. From this point of view, even a ‘better’ West Side Story is a tragedy.”

Read entire article at Boston Review