More than a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, “West Side Story” is a musical essay about America: its harsh realities of racism, police corruption, street warfare, and tribalism. Replacing Shakespeare’s feuding families of the Montagues and Capulets, the street gangs of the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the white “Jets” clash through dance and music.
Steven Spielberg's remake of "West Side Story" arrives in theaters this December. Compared with the 1961 film version with Natalie Wood (who is Russian-American), the latest version casts all Latinx characters played by Latinx actors.
Though the newcomer Latina actor Rachel Zegler, who comes from mixed Colombian and Polish backgrounds, plays Maria, Puerto Rican actor and blogger Angelica Acevedo notes that, “Hollywood disproportionately casts Puerto Rican characters with non-Puerto Ricans actors, even if they are Latinx. It perpetuates a false narrative that all Latinx identities are identical and swappable, when there is tremendous variance.”
Puerto Rican culture is especially distinct; it does not share the same music, dialect, or cuisine as other Latin cultures. According to Acevedo, “When Hollywood does cast a Puerto Rican actor, they usually already have an established career like Jennifer Lopez or Rosario Dawson. There is a great potential talent pool of lesser-known Puerto Rican stage and film actors that are undercast and underrepresented.”
During pre-production both director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner set up a town hall at the University of Puerto Rico to engage in dialogue with over sixty Puerto Rican invitees. Together, they discussed concerns of representation and the problematic aspects of the core narrative of this landmark work and how to best correct these issues in the ensuing remake.
Attendee Isel Rodriguez voiced concerns to Spielberg and Kushner about the power of the musical to “make you tingle inside and want to sing along,” but “that’s a complicated thing when you’re singing along to a lyric like, Let it sink back into the ocean." Rodriguez was referring to the hit song “America,” where Maria's brother's girlfriend, Anita, sings a song disparaging her Borinquen homeland, its economic and climate-based stressors, and emphasizes her preference for the cosmopolitan experience of Manhattan. Her boyfriend, Bernardo (Maria's older brother) counters Anita's view with the continual racism experienced by Puerto Ricans in the United States:
Everything’s alright in America/If you’re all white in America.
Rodriguez added, “I don’t know if they’ll be able to fix the problem with just Latino actors and good accents.”