The ‘West Side Story’ Remake We Didn’t Need

“The ‘West Side Story’ Remake We Didn’t Need” is an opinion piece by Yarimar Bonilla, professor of anthropology (CUNY-Graduate Center) and director of CENTRO, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. [Read the original article in The New York Times.]

I have to confess that I never saw the original “West Side Story.” All I knew was that it somehow involved gang members dance-fighting and singing about how much they loved America. I wasn’t interested. But then, growing up in Puerto Rico, I never had to search for myself in the side plots of Hollywood or Broadway. I could watch the movies and television shows made by and for Puerto Ricans.

For many first- and second-generation Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States, however, the 1961 film most likely was the first time they saw themselves represented on the big screen. Despite the convoluted plot, the dearth of actual Latino actors, the mishmash of Caribbean and Spanish culture and the deep stereotypes it trafficked in, it at least offered a recognition of the Puerto Rican presence in the United States and allowed us to be seen with some measure of grace and beauty.

In developing his 2021 remake, Steven Spielberg vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He hosted town halls in Puerto Rico to gather input, and enlisted the support of prominent historians, community advisers and a bevy of accent coaches and consultants.

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, the research center and historical archive I now direct, assisted the film’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, as he was preparing the new version of the script. Mr. Kushner immersed himself in our archives, obsessively making sure the historical references were accurate and the cultural details plausible.

They say the devil is in the details, and there are many that this film gets right, from the pale blue of the Puerto Rican flag on the nationalist murals in the set, to the specificity of slang words. But just because a historical text is accurate, does that make it authentic?

In the book “Silencing the Past,” the Haitian historian and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued that historical representations require more than just fact-checking. The mood, the tone, the feeling and the message of a historical text must also resonate with the audiences for which it is intended. And this is the problem with the new “West Side Story.” The small details might be right, but the meaning and overall purpose are muddled, at best.

In early interviews, Mr. Spielberg said that the film could help Americans understand what is happening “at the borders.” But as a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents are U.S. citizens. The borders we cross are imperial ones.

Musicals often show an exaggerated reality, but the filmmakers stressed that this one would be different. With subtle script and lyric changes, as well as the deliberate casting of Latino performers for Latino roles, they insisted that this would be an authentic “Latinx production.”

The film is littered with symbols of Puerto Rico’s nationalist movements, but there is no recognition of how people who embraced these symbols have long been surveilled and criminalized by the federal and Puerto Rican governments. There is a particular irony to the scene in which the Sharks are singing the Puerto Rican revolutionary anthem as they walk away from the police. As the cultural critic Frances Negrón Muntaner has argued, in real life such an act would have likely landed them under F.B.I. surveillance.

At a community screening hosted by Centro, the scene in which the Sharks sing the revolutionary anthem was met with not applause or celebration or any visible reaction at all, just silence.

Mr. Spielberg said that he chose not to use subtitles, so as not to give “English the power over the Spanish.” But the question of identity and language is complicated, and not all Latinos speak Spanish. When words are not translated their meaning and power can be easily lost. In one scene, Anita, played by Ariana DeBose, an Afro-Latina who identifies as queer, confronts her boyfriend, Bernardo, after he excludes her from a family conversation. She asks him if he’s rebuking her because she’s “prieta,” a derogatory term for someone with dark skin. This denunciation of colorism will likely be lost on English speakers.

The over-accented Spanish, coaxed out of U.S.-born actors by dialect coaches, ultimately becomes a kind of linguistic brownface, providing little more than a facade of authenticity as thick and corny as the brown makeup worn by the actors in the original version. 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?

One bright spot of the remake is certainly the portrayal of Anita as unapologetically Black. In the 1961 version of the song “America,” Anita is so happy to leave the island, she wishes it would “sink back in the ocean.” In the reworked version of the song, the more disparaging lines about Puerto Rico are gone: Anita now sings ambivalently about both Puerto Rican and American life. Suddenly we find ourselves asking: How does her particular experience tinge her view of both Puerto Rican and American life?

Here is where the remake feels, for a moment, authentic to the experiences of Puerto Ricans — not just those who migrated in the 1940s and ’50s but also those who continue to be displaced in the wake of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, energy crisis and multiple disasters. It is Black women like Anita who often most directly feel the effects of fiscal austerity, decaying infrastructure, abandoned schools and rising costs of living.

Yet the songs of Puerto Rican migration have nothing in common with “America.” “En Mi Viejo San Juan” and “Boricua en la Luna” speak of the pain of exile, the permanent hope of return and of a deeply rooted identity that spans generations. This is the true Puerto Rican tragedy: the painful impossibility of both assimilation and return. Some will argue that Mr. Spielberg’s production will pave the way for more Latino stories to grace the big screen. But I can’t help but

wonder if the opposite is true. After the new film’s disappointing showing at the box office, will movie studios feel there is little audience for Latino-driven films? In the movie theater in San Juan’s Plaza las Américas, “West Side Story” may have distracted from other films written and produced by Puerto Rican filmmakers, like the dark comedy “Perfume de Gardenias” and the political documentary “Simulacros de Liberación.”

If Mr. Spielberg and his team are truly committed to authentic Latino stories, they would do well to move away from trying to make old representations more palatable to a contemporary public. Instead, they should focus on nurturing and supporting not only emerging Latino actors but also directors, screenwriters, choreographers and cinematographers so that we may find the resources to tell our own stories, whether or not they fit Hollywood definitions of authenticity.

For original article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/15/opinion/west-side-story-remake.html

[Illustration above by Jorge Colombo.]

One thought on “The ‘West Side Story’ Remake We Didn’t Need

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s