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The Hollywood Insider West Side Story

Photo: ‘West Side Story’

It’s about time we have a film that features Latino characters played exclusively by Latino actors. ‘West Side Story’ is a classic story that originated in 1957 on a Broadway stage that led to the film’s release in 1961, starring the beloved and legendary Rita Moreno playing Anita. About 60 years later, Steven Spielberg’s musical debut is a reimagined version of the 1957 Broadway play, with Moreno returning to the film playing a new character written just for her, Valentina. The 1961 release of ‘West Side Story’ Moreno solidified her iconic status in Hollywood with an electric and fierce performance. 

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Of course, there’s an innate expectation for remakes to fail when the original instantly became one of Hollywood’s most cherished classics. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could retell the powerful story of the Latin experience in America. Leave it to Steven Spielberg to take up the challenge of adding modern cinematography to elevate the experience of ‘West Side Story.’ Spielberg absolutely captured the timeless story of cultural rivalry, forbidden love, and the hope for a better life to no one’s surprise. Spielberg’s version takes a more singular focus on the immigration experience and reflects on the struggle to maintain cultural values. 

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Spielberg Meets 1950s Broadway

If you have yet to see any of the ‘West Side Story’ movies, it’s best to start with the classic followed by Spielberg’s contemporary remake. This way, you can appreciate how a story’s perspective can shift through the decades. It’s enlightening to see how the artistic perspective of Latinos trying to forge their place in America remains prevalent years later. The actors in the newer version provide emotionally moving performances that surely place them in the running for the upcoming award season. Rachel Zegler’s voice is a magnetic force that leaves you in awe.

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The film contains the theatrical elements of Broadway, with Tony Kushner and the late Stephen Sondheim collaborating with Stephen Spielberg to help revive a beloved classic. Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for the 2021 film that lands well with contemporary audiences. Flawless dance sequences and classic songs infuse a theatrical essence that makes Spielberg’s film lively and wildly entertaining.  

Confronting Racism through Art

“There’s a sense of pride,” Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, said in an interview with Elle. “… having so many incredible Latine performers in this movie—people who are from all over—because it’s a real testament to the fact that we all come from so many different places. That’s the point of the story, that we are all coming from our own backgrounds, our own conversations, our own upbringings. And what do we bring to the table if we can’t talk to each other about it?” Which is often a repeating error for how Hollywood has traditionally depicted Latinos. There’s a common practice of over-generalizing the Latino experience and chalking it up to a lackluster portrayal of what it means to be Latino, especially Latina actresses who are forced to embody an over-sexualized and stereotypical dramatic being. 

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Spielberg’s film spotlights the past and present inaccurate portrayals of Latinos founded on racism. Lately, an influx of Latino stories and Latino actors, hello Lin-Manuel Miranda and Rita Moreno, are elevating the Latino identity on Broadway and Hollywood. “The movie is relevant and very timely for what’s happening along our borders and the systems set up in this country that reject anyone who isn’t white,” Steven Spielberg told Vanity Fair. That is, there’s still an unsettling cultural division in our country where people of color and Latinos suffer from the same exclusion and persecution as those from the past. “That’s a big part of our story. The characters say and do things in our movie that they didn’t say or do onstage, or in the 1961 film. And we cast all Latinx actors for the Shark boys and the Shark girls,” Spielberg continued in his Vanity Fair interview.

As successful as the original film was, the 1961 ‘West Side Story’ failed to capture the diverse realm of Latinx individuality. “I finished the movie feeling even more confused than I was before about what being Puerto Rican was supposed to mean — to me, and to the ‘average’ American,” Carina Del Valle Schorske revealed in a New York Times dialogue and article.

What Makes ‘West Side Story’ So Good

“It’s just that love bridges every divide. It’s timeless in the sense that we [should] be reminded of that story as often as possible,” Spielberg revealed to Collider. The captivating story of Tony and Maria inspires audiences to choose love over fear in the face of racism, gentrification, and gang wars. Tony is an Irish American whose choice of interest causes an upheaval amongst his own crew. He’s condemned for falling in love with a Puerto Rican, and their challenging love is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, where love must overcome embedded social conflicts. 

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In the case of remakes, it’s difficult to compare to the original. Let alone improve a classic that won not one, not two, but ten Oscar trophies in 1962. And yet, Spielberg did just that. His vision to heighten the Puerto Rican experience was evident when he decided to forego English subtitles for Spanish lines. Spielberg spoke with IndieWire in an interview where he explained, “That was very important and that goes hand-in-hand with my reasoning for not subtitling the Spanish….”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.” Spielberg celebrates the voices behind the forceful tale of Puerto Ricans claiming their recognition as Americans.

It’s the perfect time for a musical revival of one of Broadway’s and Hollywood’s greatest hits. And Steven Spielberg is just the man to breathe new air into a decades-old story that remains relevant for today’s divided atmosphere. ‘West Side Story’ is a passionate story that centers on love despite all odds, including racism.  

 Cast: Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana Debose, Maddie Ziegler

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay: Tony Kushner

By Gina Michele Yaniz

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Black Lives Matter, in which he tackles more than just police reform, press freedom and more – click here.

An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, “The Hollywood Insider fully supports the much-needed Black Lives Matter movement. We are actively, physically and digitally a part of this global movement. We will continue reporting on this major issue of police brutality and legal murders of Black people to hold the system accountable. We will continue reporting on this major issue with kindness and respect to all Black people, as each and every one of them are seen and heard.

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