It saddens me to report that West Side Story is shallow, offensive, and toxic. At the risk of sounding inflammatory I’ll say that this is an outdated narrative that serves as a beautiful example of ego at its most extravagant. –Ouch– I know that’s harsh but, for those of you still here, allow me to elaborate.
The Jets and the Sharks are rival street gangs who have been fighting over control of Upper West Side Manhattan for a handful of years. Just as things are coming to a breaking point Romeo– I mean Tony, meets Maria–I mean Juliet– I mean Maria, the Puerto Rican girl whose name makes the very heavens cheer with joy. The two of them share exactly one dance and two kisses before deciding the war between the gangs must end so they can be united para siempre… What could possibly go wrong?
When watching this film we will all ingest it through our own life experiences so I find it only fair that I share with you a small glimpse into the lens through which I saw it myself. I am a Puerto Rican man who was raised by strong feminists both on the island and in New York. Somehow, this film manages to improperly depict and offend every part of me.
Before you brush me off as being too sensitive, keep in mind that we live in a world that discourages feeling and expression, especially in men. In moments like this I can’t help but admire the leaps women and the LGBTQ+ community have made in recent history, taking solid a stand against how they are represented and/or objectified in entertainment. They recognize that TV & Film have the power to influence people in real ways, consciously and unconsciously. If women were depicted today the way men are in this film they would be in an uproar. Dumb, unkept, petty, and monstrously angry. Every single one capable of, not just violence and murder but, rape.
I understand this is a period piece but does every brown character having a bad Hispanic accent do anything for the narrative? I could be wrong but I thought that white directors telling brown actors to speak with exaggerated accents was behind us. Rita Moreno herself has complained about this back in the early days of her career so what happened here? So yes, I find it offensive to hear people failing to depict the accents I am all too familiar with as a Puerto Rican man raised on the island and in N.Y.
“…concrete jungle where dreams are made of…” If West Side Story is a dream, wake me up.
Ladies, you keep this world running and make it beautiful. I hope that a boy singing your name is not what makes you “feel pretty and witty and bright”. I don’t care that this is a remake. Are we really still hanging the worth of a woman on the whims of men? In Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation, Juliet is trapped under the control of men who hide behind “family loyalty” but she is also depicted as smart, capable, and determined. A classic remade for its time.
I cringe at the thought of Steven Spielberg being rewarded for doing the bare minimum by calling it “staying true to the source material”. Unfortunately he will be. He’ll receive nominations and possibly some wins for polishing this divisive classic and hiding all of its very serious issues behind pretty pictures, a vibrant color palette, and some decent dance choreography.