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Spielberg ditches the brownface in a ‘West Side Story’ remake that centers Puerto Ricans

“It’s not a political movie. It’s still ‘West Side Story,’” legendary actor Rita Moreno said. “But it has more awareness about what that actually means.”
Rachel Zegler as Maria in "West Side Story."
Rachel Zegler as Maria in "West Side Story."Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox

As any fan of "West Side Story" would expect, Steven Spielberg's remake of the classic 1957 Broadway musical starts off with the distinctive three-note whistle from the Jets gang as they make their way around New York City's San Juan Hill while it's being demolished to make way for a wealthier neighborhood.

Images of the rubble in the once predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood stand next to a sign saying “Property Purchased by New York City for Slum Clearance” — placing audiences in New York City's 1950s urban renewal period, when an array of low-income communities were being displaced.

The tensions that come with displacement and the urge to protect their homes from the nearing wrecking ball fuel the rivalry between two teenage street gangs — the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. Their rivalry intensifies when Tony, a Jet, falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo.

For Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s friend, the remake centers more on why these gangs are battling each other as opposed to "the real enemy."

"You see two groups of people who are inherently very different fighting each other, when really they actually have more in common," DeBose said. "We all want love. We all want a safe place to go home. We all just want to be accepted for who we are."

Many Puerto Ricans and Latinos initially felt seen in the original 1961 “West Side Story,” the first large-scale film to acknowledge the presence of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. mainland. It was also beloved for its memorable musical score and choreography.

But such visibility came at a price. The musical’s original creators, all of whom were accomplished white men in their respective theater fields, relied on centuries-old stereotypes about Latinos that portrayed women as virginal and childlike or sexual and fiery while the men were violent and clannish, said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the founding director of the Media and Idea Lab at Columbia University.

Adding accuracy to the Puerto Rican experience

In the new movie, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner work to correct the original musical and movie's stereotypical depictions, adding more specificity and historical context around the Puerto Rican experience, and around the issues of racism and racial hostility.

Such animosity first becomes evident when the Jets vandalize a mural of the Puerto Rican flag with a quotation from Pedro Albizu Campos, the leading figure of the Puerto Rican independence movement. The quote reads, "la patria es valor y sacrificio," Spanish for "the homeland is value and sacrifice."

“Once you see that and you notice that the flag is the light blue flag, which is the original color of the Puerto Rican flag” before the U.S. colonized Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, “you are already getting some clues as to the militancy of some of the Sharks, including Bernardo, who is a very sharp and smart person, as well as a well-read person,” Virginia Sánchez-Korrol, a professor emerita of Puerto Rican and Latino studies at Brooklyn College who was a historical consultant for the film, said.

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria, center, in "West Side Story."
Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria, center, in "West Side Story."Ramona Rosales / Twentieth Century Fox

Bernardo and the Sharks respond to the Jets' insult by singing the original version of Puerto Rico’s national anthem, "La Borinqueña."

The original anthem includes revolutionary lyrics by Lola Rodríguez de Tió that allude to a free Puerto Rico. Writer Manuel Fernández Juncos adapted the lyrics three years after the U.S. colonized Puerto Rico, taking out all of the political undertones. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory ever since, and its residents are U.S. citizens.

“That really sets the stage for the mindset of the young men who are in the Sharks,” Sánchez-Korrol said.

That kind of detail-oriented approach to character development is the ingredient that separates Spielberg's remake from the 1961 film adaptation, which became the first major U.S. cultural product to recognize Puerto Ricans as a distinct Latino group, for better or for worse.

“In that sense, the film, this particular ‘West Side Story,’ has more awareness and more clarity about the political situation,” Rita Moreno, who starred as Anita in the 1961 film version, said during a recent NBC News interview. “It’s not a political movie. It’s still ‘West Side Story,’ but it has more awareness about what that actually means, whereas the original film that I was in was more about the Broadway production being reproduced on film.”

A more sober look at the 'American Dream'

The corrective work is also reflected in the way Kushner adds much-needed dimension to the characters, particularly those of Maria and of Chino, one of the Sharks.

In the new version, Maria is 18 and has been living in San Juan Hill for four months after having left Puerto Rico to reunite with her brother, Bernardo, and have access to better-paying jobs.

"We made sure that the audience knows she's 18," said Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria. "The first time you see her, she's got this sour look on her face and she doesn't want to wear this dress, and she's not prim and proper."

Chino is introduced as a young Puerto Rican man with professional aspirations who looks up to Bernardo as an older brother. Bernardo is trying to set him up with his sister Maria, who doesn't seem interested in him.

Chino wrestles with trying to believe in the American Dream and resenting the way he's treated because he's Puerto Rican, a tension that unleashes some of the film's most climactic sequences.

The character's internal conflict crystallizes when Josh Andrés Rivera, who plays Chino, delivers one of his most startling lines: “Gringos sooner or later kill everything."

Ariana DeBose as Anita in "West Side Story."
Ariana DeBose as Anita in "West Side Story."Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox

Like Chino, Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, also starts off believing in the American Dream until she has a terrible encounter with the Jets, in which she is assaulted. The assault, which follows a series of other tragic events, leads Anita to assert her Puerto Rican identity and completely reject assimilation.

Anita's initial hope for a better life in the mainland first becomes clear in the iconic musical number "America," as Bernardo seems skeptical about having access to significantly better opportunities.

David Alvarez, who plays Bernardo, said "America" reflects the differences of opinion among Puerto Ricans, as well as in other migrant or immigrant communities, "about what's better."

"Is it better to stay in America, where people don't accept you, or is it better to stay in your country, where you're not living a free life but you're more accepted within that community?" Alvarez said. "That's why I love this number, 'America,' because it has these two different ideologies, these two people who think differently."

Even though Anita and Bernardo have different points of view, “at the end of the number, they kiss each other, even though they disagree,” Alvarez said. “That’s what love is about. It doesn’t matter if you disagree, love can still bring you together.”

George Chakiris and Moreno's interpretation of "America" on a rooftop is perhaps the most recognizable number from the 1961 film. But rather than recreate it, Spielberg reinvents it completely by having Alvarez and DeBose lead an epic ensemble around the streets of San Juan Hill.

It starts off with the main salsa beat, or "la clave," subtly incorporating the sound of an iconic Puerto Rican instrument, the güiro — a move that seems to respond to criticism of the original musical's lack of Puerto Rican music.

"America's" opening lyrics were also changed from the 1957 and 1961 versions to eliminate some denigrating lines about Puerto Rico and its people.

Learning from the community's history

While Spielberg and Kushner's efforts to right some of the wrongs are evident in the remake, critics have argued that it still perpetuates the notion that Latinos aren't able to tell their own narratives in big Hollywood films.

Only 4.2 percent of directors who worked on 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019 were Latino or Hispanic, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California.

Sánchez-Korrol said Spielberg and Kushner’s attempts to make the portrayal of Puerto Ricans in 1957 New York more accurate wouldn't have been possible without the work of research institutions like the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College and others that have spent decades documenting Puerto Rican history — resources that didn't exist when the original “West Side Story” was created.

“There was tons of research that went into the context of the film, not only before we stepped foot on a rehearsal stage, but while we were in rehearsals. There were panels that informed us about those lifestyles and what was actually going on,” Zegler said. “None of us — as far as we’d like to say ‘our Latin heritage can give us knowledge’ — nobody knew what it was like in 1957. And that was a learning curve for all of us.”

Embracing bilingualism

The new “West Side Story” includes a significant amount of Spanish dialogue without subtitles, reflecting the experience of more than 40 million Latinos who speak both English and Spanish. The dialogue is full of slang words that Puerto Ricans would recognize, such as "zángano,” which means "dummy" or "doof," and “prieta,” referring to a dark-skinned woman. However, enough is said in English for monolingual audiences to follow the plot.

In addition, all of the Puerto Rican characters are played by Latinos.

“Being the first Latina to play her [Maria] on screen, that was a huge moment,” said Zegler, who is Colombian and Polish. "My Latin heritage does inform me in a very real way — I walked through the world differently than Natalie Wood did." Wood played Maria in the 1961 film.

"I spoke Spanish on the street and was told to go back to where I came from, even though I was born in New Jersey," Zegler said. "That is the reality of being a Latina in the United States."

In the 1961 film, almost all of the Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors in brownface and spoke with an accent that barely resembles Spanish — much less Puerto Ricans' distinct pronunciations. Even Moreno, the sole Puerto Rican cast member back then, was forced to speak with an exaggerated accent and wear brown makeup to darken her skin.

Moreno’s portrayal of Anita in the original film earned her a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, making her the first Latina to win the honor. She returns to Spielberg’s remake as an executive producer and as Valentina, a new role based on Doc, the character who owned the store where the Jets hung out in the original film and was Tony’s voice of reason.

Ansel Elgort as Tony in "West Side Story."
Ansel Elgort as Tony in "West Side Story."Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox

Other recurring themes from the remake, such as issues around policing and gender identity, seem as current now as they were in the 1950s.

Spielberg subtly hints at the difference between the police's sympathetic treatment of the Jets and their treatment of the Sharks. Jets member Anybodys is portrayed as a nonbinary character by the transgender actor Ezra Menas, not as an old-fashioned tomboy, as in previous versions.

Anybodys also uses the virtual invisibility of gender nonconformity as an asset, vigilantly observing from "the shadows" and reporting back to the Jets.

Moreno's "West Side Story" journey came full circle when Spielberg wrapped production almost 2½ years ago and gave her the clapboard used to film the movie's last iconic scene — actor Ansel Elgort singing "Maria."

"Steven gave me the greatest gift an actor could ever have for movies," Moreno said. His remake, she said, "has way more soul" than the original film.

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