Before its release, I had heard about Steven Spielberg’s rendition of West Side Story. I hadn’t seen the original version, and I had no idea what the movie would be about besides the fact that it features Puerto Rican characters. I knew that, in some way, the movie would be bad, but nothing would prepare me for the horror I witnessed with my friends when we decided to watch.
One question remained in my mind: Why is our story being told by non-Puerto Ricans? As a Puerto Rican woman, I struggled to believe the fact that, not only is the film real and was made in the current century, but that no one found a single problem with the film.
Besides the film being boring, too long and badly acted, it has a major, more important problem: it's disgustingly racist and degrading towards Puerto Ricans. The film was directed by an American man, written by another American man, and features actors of all races and ethnicities…except for Puerto Rican. Many praise the movie for its diverse cast, but this is nothing but an attempt to fuel Spielberg’s white savior complex. None of the actors are Puerto Rican, and no, you can’t just cast any Latino person to play a Puerto Rican. All Latinos are different.
The movie is meant to showcase the Puerto Rican experience and represent our story and culture. However, you can’t cast a Colombian-American to play a Puerto Rican (in the case of María, one of the main characters) and have a white American man (Tony Kushner) write the screenplay when he has no knowledge of the topic or the people he portrays. In this day and age, people would be outraged if a movie about any other group of people was made without input from said group, so why does no one see a problem with West Side Story?
As I watched the movie, I noticed how terrible the so-called Puerto Rican accents were throughout the film. The Spanish spoken was questionable, and there were no subtitles for non-Spanish speaking people to understand the film, which was filled with a ton of (weird) Spanish dialogue. Casting was also off because they also didn’t accurately portray how diverse Puerto Ricans look. While the original film from the 1960s used brownface to make the actors look “more Puerto Rican” (including one of, if not the only Puerto Rican actress in the film, Rita Moreno), the 2021 version decided to not only cast any actor on the basis that they were Latino or of Latino descent, but also cast actors with no diversity in their features and skin colors. This speaks on a bigger issue: the fact that Americans think they can decide what Puerto Ricans look like. Puerto Ricans can have any skin tone imaginable, as well as any type of hair and hair color. We can have dark skin or pale skin. We can have more European features; some of us even have typically Asian features. We’re all still Puerto Rican no matter what we look like.
The dialogue of the film was also off. The only attempt made to make the actors speak like Puerto Ricans was to add a few slang words here and there. All of this is made more insulting by the fact that Spielberg and everyone involved claimed this movie was supposed to tell our story and portray our culture accurately, and that they wanted to tone down the racism of the original film. The movie was meant to give us representation, but all it did was take away our voice and invalidate our struggle as Puerto Ricans.
While the movie brings up the racism Puerto Ricans face, especially during the 50s and 60s, it spends its whole runtime excusing the behavior of the Jets, the gang of racist rapists. We’re supposed to sympathize with them, all while the meant-to-be-Puerto Rican characters are portrayed as inferior. Because this movie was meant to be less racist than the original film and stage play, it ends up being more harmful and racist because of its failed attempt.
Most harmful is the fact the film's anti-Puerto Rico message comes out of the mouth of the Puerto Rican characters themselves, as seen in the musical’s fan-favorite song: “America.” While in Speilberg’s version the lyrics were toned down (originally the song has the sadly iconic line “Puerto Rico/My heart's devotion/Let it sink back in the ocean”), it still perpetuates the idea that America is superior to Puerto Rico. This song–and the whole movie–fail to acknowledge the historical context needed to understand the complicated topic of the immigration of Puerto Ricans to the United States.
While Maria’s brother Bernardo, during the whole song constantly tells his fiance Anita how Puerto Ricans are oppressed and discriminated against in America, and how the only way to get ahead in the country is if you’re a white American, Anita keeps going on about how amazing the country is. The song portrays Bernardo as a fool; therefore audiences take Anita’s side in the song and don’t see a single problem with the entire performance. The song’s choreography also isn’t based on any Puerto Rican dances or genres of music, but are heavily influenced by dances and music from Spain. While Puerto Rico was colonized and under the power of Spain for over 400 years until the U.S. invaded, our culture is not at all the same as Spain’s. Those dances aren’t traditional to Puerto Rico.
The entire film invalidates Puerto Ricans, our experience and our history. It fails to recognize that the United States itself is the source of a lot of Puerto Rico’s problems, since the United States has oppressed us ever since their invasion. There’s no way of making a “non-racist, historically accurate” version of West Side Story without the input of Puerto Ricans. West Side Story shouldn’t have existed in the first place, so, at the very least, Hollywood should stop trying to revive it. Please leave West Side Story and its nasty stereotypes in the past.
Art by Avery Slezak