Weighing the Worth of a New West Side Story

Emanuel Padilla

Film critics have asked if another West Side Story was creatively necessary. Many Puerto Ricans, however, have asked whether it was culturally necessary.

The original 1957 Broadway show won two Tony Awards, but it involved characters like Anita singing disparaging lyrics about Puerto Rico, including lines like “You ugly island . . . Island of tropic diseases.” The 1961 film adaptation changed some of these lyrics but included actors in “brownface” playing reductive versions of Puerto Ricans. Director Steven Spielberg’s new movie adaptation of the musical is yet another example of the property's contradictory cultural influence. How should audiences judge the seemingly inevitable harm produced by this adaptation? What about this story perpetuates its contradictory tension?

These questions get some answers early in the film, during “The Dance at the Gym.” It is hard not to see Spielberg himself as the chaperone monitoring the dance. As the smartly dressed Sharks and Jets goad each other with intentional bumps and slights, the chaperone tries to organize a group activity to push them toward reconciliation. His efforts fall flat because he ignores the structural pressures driving the groups’ antagonism. Similarly, Spielberg attempts to deconstruct the racial images of West Side Story without fully recognizing the histories undergirding those images.

Spielberg and his team do make some important changes, such as the use of the lighter blue flag, which represented Puerto Rico before its possession by the United States. Perhaps the most significant change made involves the opening prologue. Rather than the sweeping skyline views of the original, the new film opens with a demolition scene. As the camera scans the debris, it slows on a sign that reads “Property Purchased by New York City for Slum Clearance.” Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner set the story in the context of 1950s urban renewal. The visual symbols of gentrification are amplified by an opening monologue delivered to members of both gangs by Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll). Schrank coldly mocks the rival gangs for missing the larger point: neither of them is valued enough to make any claims on their “turf.” In the face of external forces, their plight is irrelevant.

The history of racism against Irish immigrants is the backstory for the Jets. Schrank first hints at it when he tells the Jets they are the leftovers of families who could not successfully assimilate into white America. (This comes up again in the tragic but humorous “Gee, Officer Krupke,” where the Jets describe decades of social decay produced by their families’ marginalization.) Likewise, the addition of a mural of Pedro Albizu Campos—a leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement—and the Sharks’ rendition of “La Borinqueña” with the original revolutionary lyrics points to a history of Puerto Rican colonization and oppression. Both groups exist as part of the racial underclass.

In another added scene, Jets’ leader Riff (Mike Faist) purchases a gun but is warned by an older man (Curtiss Cook) that violence only guarantees “mutually assured destruction.” This version of the story is more than a simple retelling of Romeo and Juliet; it is now about how extended abjection causes the underclass to turn against themselves, desperate to retain some dignity. This repositioning of the story points the audience to a common enemy shared by the Sharks and Jets, an enemy that womanist theologian Emilie Townes calls the “fantastic hegemonic imagination.”

Spielberg attempts to deconstruct the racial images of West Side Story without fully recognizing the histories undergirding those images.

According to Townes, the fantastic hegemonic imagination is cultural production that perpetuates evil against the marginalized; it “traffics in peoples’ lives that are caricatured or pillaged.” This is the source of West Side Story’s constant spiral toward harm. The brilliance of this version isn’t enough to undo years of caricature. Even Spielberg’s attempt to honor Spanish by refusing to use English subtitles gets wrapped in the fantastic hegemonic imagination. As professor Yarimar Bonilla notes, the impact of the Sharks singing the revolutionary anthem is lost when some audiences don’t know what they are hearing; “there is no recognition of how people who embraced these symbols have long been surveilled and criminalized by the federal and Puerto Rican governments.”

During a recent panel discussion with leading Puerto Rican scholars, Grammy-nominee Bobby Sanabria shared about his involvement on an advisory board that consulted on the cultural issues to consider for the remake. Sanabria explained that the original film resonated with him because he remembered joining a Puerto Rican gang in the 1950s “to protect [himself] from the white gangs that didn’t ‘dig us’ too much . . .” He continued, “It is a reality that happened and is still a reality today.” Brian Eugenio Herrera, another panelist, countered, arguing that the reality of gangs was and remains true, but the impact of West Side Story was that it filled the imaginations of moviegoers in the United States with images of Caribbean Latinos as criminal gang members. The image produced by the film is not of gang life as self-defense, but rather gang life as violent criminality. What had been impactful for Sanabria was poison for the next generation.

How do we escape the harm perpetuated by the fantastic hegemonic imagination? As with any mixed cultural production, West Side Story hints toward an answer. As the movie nears its climax, Valentina (Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original), sings “Somewhere”: “Someday, somewhere / We'll find a new way of living / We'll find a way of forgiving / Somewhere.” These words—”someday,” “somewhere”—are repeated, like the refrain in a liturgical prayer. Throughout the film, Valentina tries to intercede on behalf of Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jet being pressured to rejoin the gang. Her prayer and intercession point to a “somewhere” where young people are freed from the vicious cycles of the fantastic hegemonic imagination.

This musical always ends with tragedy, but this time it’s set in the debris of “slum clearance.” Despite Valentina’s best wishes, the fantastic hegemonic imagination consumes the lives of several characters. The film’s conclusion forces audiences to sit with the inevitable evil caused by cycles of disenfranchisement. This part of West Side Story is all too real and all too quotidian.

Ironically, Townes reminds believers that the everyday is where Christians begin to bear witness to the fantastic hegemonic imagination’s destruction. In a synagogue, Jesus once read from the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners . . .” Throughout the gospels and Acts, we see the commissioning of everyday folks—those who themselves were prisoners of the fantastic hegemonic imagination—to proclaim this good news.

Concerning the Black sisters and brothers who taught her the truth of the gospel, Townes wrote, “These folk placed a legacy within us of hope and the ability to strategize to resist the inaccurate and harrowing definition of what is considered normal in the fantastic hegemonic imagination.” Everyday truth-telling, in word and deed, not grandiose gestures. That’s how the fantastic hegemonic imagination is broken. Townes invites us to take a “hardheaded look at the elements necessary for a tough-minded society that does not romanticize or sentimentalize the high-walled barricades that can prevent genuine and enduring acts of justice in the face of structural evil.”

As the camera pans out at the end of West Side Story, it's clear that Lt. Schrank was wrong: the struggles of the racial underclass do matter. Spielberg’s film does not entirely avoid contributing to the musical’s contradictory legacy, but it does raise the ethical urgency. It is up to the church to pray with Valentina and respond with works that bear witness to the King, until his return rewrites the end of West Side Story.

Topics: Movies