West Side Story (2021): Beautifully reiterated

Last Tuesday I went to the Forum with my parents, and we watched the remake of the classic West Side Story. For the layman that read this: West Side Story is Broadway musical from 1957 that rose to fame when it was made into a film in 1961, with most notably Natalie Wood starring as Maria and Rita Morena winning an Oscar as the first woman of Latin descent.

Now, more than sixty years later, the phenomenal Steven Spielberg made a remake of the classic.

The story is basically Romeo and Julia, so I personally think a spoiler-warning is not necessary, but just to be sure, if you don’t know Romeo and Julie (shame!), there are some spoilers from now on.

The movie is centered around two rivaling “gangs” in New York City: The jets and the sharks, with the jets from Irish descent and the sharks from Puerto Rican descent. It is a story about love, race and family. Maria meets Tony, and they fall in love. However, Maria is from Puerto Rican descent and her brother is the leader of the Sharks. Tony was a part of the Jets but after spending time in jail he decided to let his bad-boy days be part of his past. Still, the romance between the two causes a lot of drama and the movie ends in true Shakespearian style, deaths.

The old version of West Side Story gives me a lovely nostalgic feeling, but of course its plain racism is something that I unfortunately cannot ignore anymore. Maria, Puerto Rican, is played by the lovely Natalie Wood who is extremely white (Russian-American) and she wore make-up to appear a bit darker. Rita Morena, who plays Anita (Maria’s brother’s girlfriend), was of Puerto Rican descent. However, according to the 1960’s she was considered too white to actually be Puerto Rican and as a result she also had to blackface herself. When she complained about this during the make-up session the make-up artists accused HER of being racist, because what is being wrong with wearing make-up to darken yourself? This, and some more reasons (the lyrics in the beautiful song “America” where Puerto Rican is described in quite a problematic way to just mention one more) make the old-school version a little bit painful to watch sometimes. Of course the movie is portrayal of the time it was made in.

The movie however is a classic, and even today it is still a movie that faces issues that are still present. Lyrics like “Life is all right in America, if you’re all-white in America” and “Buying on credit is so nice, one look at us and they charge twice” still feel like a punch to the gut for me.

In the new version of West Side Story all these critiques have been dealt with beautifully. Maria is played by Rachel Zegler, who is not Puerto Rican but of Colombian descent. Anita is played by Ariana Debose, who has a Puerto Rican father and is darker skinned than the other people in the cast, something that is addressed in one of the fights between her and her boyfriend. There is no blackface in this beautiful remake, thankfully. Where in the old version the fight between the Jets and the Sharks was basically a fight about territory, in this version it is a more painful and realistic fight about gentrification and racism. The lyrics in “America” have been adapted, and this version of “America” is in my humble opinion worth spending 10 euros for to see  on the big screen. The rape-scene with Anita gets another layer because this time when the Jets assault her, now the Jet girls try to stop the boys, instead of just standing by and watching. This gives an extra level of depth to the movie.

The characters have better background stories causing you root for them even more and which make the untimely death of some incredibly painful.

However, there is of course still room for critique. Some decide to skip the movie because of Ansel Elgort, who was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old. Besides that, it is still a movie which supports the stereo-type of the violent Latin gangs, and Maria is still mostly a stupid 18-year-old girl who is in love, with no other interests (she has her heads in the clouds and has nothing in her life going for her except Tony, a quite stereotypical and one dimensional teenage-girl portrait) .

But for me, I like looking at the crazy love of Tony and Maria. I would not get “married” within 24-hours of knowing one another, but I get the feeling of love which makes you want to do something like this. The music still is phenomenal and the story of people from two different races who fall in love against all odds reminds me of my parents. The drama and painful ending leaves you with a gut-wrenching feeling when leaving the movie that I cannot describe. Romeo and Julia by Shakespeare can be traced back to an Italian/French text of the late 16th century, which in its turn can be related back to Pyramus and Thisbe by Ovid, and I think we can continue like this. In my humble opinion, remakes can beautifully reiterate old stories and bring them to the attention of a new generation. Please support your local culture and watch West Side Story in Forum.

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