Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ skips subtitles…

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing these items to our attention. See more links below.] Here is Bill Goodykoontz’s take on West Side Story and language in his article “Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ skips subtitles. Here’s how it makes the movie better.” For the original review, see Arizona Republic.

There are so many things to like about Steven Spielberg’s new big-screen version of “West Side Story.” Not using English subtitles when characters speak Spanish is one of them.

Visually the film, which arrives in theaters Friday, Dec. 10, is a masterpiece, Spielberg’s most expressive use of cinematic language in years. It looks like a Spielberg movie in the best possible way. The songs, of course, are the songs, some of the most famous ever written for the stage.

Spielberg also worked to fix one of the problems with the 1961 version by casting Latino actors to play Latino characters. Natalie Wood was many things, but Puerto Rican was not one of them.

But it’s not just the casting. In the film, Spielberg emphasizes the otherness of the recent immigrant. It is a feeling magnified by the bigotry and sometimes blatant racism shown by members of the Jets, the white rival gang of the Puerto Rican Sharks, and by the cops, who have no use for those they consider interlopers.

Why ‘West Side Story’ doesn’t use subtitles for Spanish

Naturally, some people will be unhappy, even outraged, because that’s true of everything, whether it’s politics or the time the sun sets.

No argument that begins with acknowledging you haven’t seen the movie you’re criticizing is a strong one. But there are other reasons these takes are wrong. For one thing, according to World Population Review, about 23% of U.S. residents — 52 million people — speak Spanish. But that’s just the numbers. There’s also the artistry.

In an interview with IGN, Spielberg explained his reasoning, linking it to casting Latino actors. “That was very important and that goes hand-in-hand with my reasoning for not subtitling the Spanish,” he said. “If I subtitled the Spanish I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish. This was not going to happen in this film, I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it.”

Why leaving out subtitles makes ‘West Side Story’ an even better movie

This is not political correctness, not kowtowing to some imaginary woke-mob mentality. Yes, it fosters and celebrates inclusion, which is invaluable both to the film and to those who see it. But it also works as a practical matter. It makes the film better.

For one thing, the majority of the movie is in English. For another, the meaning of what the actors are saying is always clear in the context of the scene if you’re paying attention. You bought a ticket, you should be. And it’s also something the characters discuss.  For instance, some of the Spanish-language dialogue takes place in the apartment Bernardo (David Alvarez) shares with his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) and his sister Maria (Rachel Zegler). When Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) questions them, sometimes they speak Spanish. “English!” Schrank will yell.

But at other times the three speak Spanish when they’re alone in the apartment. Whether it’s a result of an interrogation or making plans for a dance, whether they’re talking to non-Spanish speakers or among themselves, it sounds and feels authentic. 

Speaking Spanish walls them off from other people in the New York City neighborhood where they live. Walls work two ways. It protects them and insulates them from those who don’t want them there and aren’t shy about saying so.

But it can wall them in, too. This is something Anita recognizes when she, too, badgers Bernardo to speak English. Unlike Schrank, she understands what Bernardo is saying. But she also recognizes that his insistence on not speaking English is preventing him from blending more easily into the culture he’s moved smack into the middle of. It’s something she wants, but he defiantly opposes.

Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, told Collider, “They’re going from English to Spanish, with Anita trying to get both her boyfriend, hopefully soon to be her husband, and Maria by saying, ‘We’re in New York now, please assimilate. Please use this language.’”

That debate is at the heart of many of the narrative conflicts in the film. Who do they want to be? Who will this culture let them be? And what is their place within it?

Their language, and how they choose to use it, is part of that. How Spielberg chooses to use it is, too. His choices resonate beyond the dialogue in the film, and with the dialogue about it, as well.

For original review, see

[Photo above by Niko Tavernise.]
Also see:

The old ‘West Side Story’ got half the story wrong. Spielberg’s new film tries to make it right
Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN, December 11, 2021

What’s Really Going on With West Side Story’s Unsubtitled Spanish—and What It Misses
Spielberg’s new version addresses some of the show’s shortcomings, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Sofia Andrade, Slate, December 11, 2021

An Earthier, Sweatier “West Side Story”
Steven Spielberg’s film wants to fight dirtier than its famous predecessor ever did, but how much authenticity is possible?
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, December 10, 2021

2 thoughts on “Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ skips subtitles…

  1. If an actor is any good you can suspend disbelief and believe in that character. I don’t have a problem with actors playing a part if their skills are good enough to convince. Natalie Wood was a good actress but I’ve always thought she wasn’t a right fit for that role.

    I’ve known people automatically slip into their first language when English wouldn’t do. It may have been out of anger or passion or a point had to be made and they hadn’t enough English to
    get their message across. Some people (like my neighbour) surround themselves with those who speak their language and never bother to learn the language of the country they’re in.

    Walls protect and insulate newcomers. They have a need for it.. But I go back far enough to remember that there was hope for the next lot who were born in the country, raised and educated there and speak the language. I’m sorry to note that we’ve separated into little tribes in recent times; sorry to realise that assimilating has mutated into a dirty word. This is probably not the time to redo West Side Story.


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