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'West Side Story' banned in parts of Mideast over transgender character

Censors weren’t on board with Anybodys, a character who is transgender and portrayed by nonbinary actor Iris Menas.
Image: West Side Story
Ariana DeBose as Anita in ' West Side Story'.Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios

Some audiences in the Middle East won’t get to experience the epic love story between Maria and Tony.

Disney and 20th Century’s “West Side Story,” director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the classic musical, has been banned in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. In some cases, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the film wasn’t granted a release certificate. In other countries, such as Qatar and Oman, Disney refused to comply with cuts requested by censors.

The move isn’t entirely surprising because Middle Eastern countries have strict censorship mandates regarding sexuality, swearing, and other aspects that don’t comply with the nation’s cultural views. “West Side Story” isn’t profane, but it’s understood that censors weren’t on board with Anybodys, a character who is transgender and portrayed by nonbinary actor Iris Menas. Films with LGBTQ references have been regularly targeted by censors in the Middle East, as well as China. Most recently, Disney’s comic book epic “Eternals” was pulled from release across the same region due to the inclusion of Marvel’s first openly same-sex couple. In the movie, Brian Tyree Henry’s otherworldly character Phastos shares a kiss with his mortal husband Ben (Haaz Sleiman).

“West Side Story” releases elsewhere in theaters on Friday. The new version comes 60 years after the original movie (itself adapted from the 1957 Broadway show) and features Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort as star-crossed lovers. Their new romance fuels the rivalry between warring street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The cast also includes Ariana DeBose as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for portraying Anita in the 1961 adaptation) as Valentina.

Variety’s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman praised Spielberg’s take on the well-known tale, saying the director made the movie his own while staying true to what audiences love about the story’s central Romeo and Juliet-esque romance.

“There are scenes in Spielberg’s version that will melt you, scenes that will make your pulse race, and scenes where you simply sit back and revel in the big-spirited grandeur of it all,” he wrote.

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