Being reel: ‘West Side Story’ (2021) is a remake that succeeds at all the wrong things

Dancers dance in the street.
“West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in December 2021 and is a remake of the 1961 film of the same name. (Courtesy: Disney)

CW: sexual violence

When Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” was first announced, I was excited. The announcement coincided with when the Ivo van Hove Broadway revival was in previews; this film remake seemed to be a chance to update the story as a response to the anti-immigration rhetoric that maliciously dominated culture in the Trump-era.

There was something to be hopeful about with the Spielberg remake: it actually casted Latinx actors for the roles of the Sharks, abandoning the “brownface” that was rampant throughout the original. Maria is no longer portrayed by a white Jewish woman in Natalie Wood, but rather a Latina actress in Rachel Zegler. The accents no longer create a minstrelsy out of Puerto Ricans, something that not only horribly dated the original but made it increasingly hard to watch.

However, with the remake’s delays due to COVID-19, there seemed to be a specter haunting the production, which neither Spielberg, the producers, the cast or anyone else involved seemed eager to expel. In June 2020, in the middle of production, Ansel Elgort, who plays the romantic lead Tony, was accused of sexual assault. Elgort, throughout the press run for the movie, managed to avoid the topic — a privilege that his female castmates did not have, as Elgort went unscathed. Disappointingly, his co-stars Rita Moreno, Ariana DeBose and Zegler seemed to avoid the question or maneuver around it in ways that still afforded them the ability to praise Elgort’s performance.

Unfortunately, I guess that’s just how sexual assault gets handled in Hollywood — something we, as happy consumers of its products, keep learning in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The reckless way in which his cast members came to defend Elgort and Spielberg’s lack of commentary on the issue overshadowed the release of the film. As a result, the movie did not even make half of its production value back. 

Beyond casting issues, the film’s content is nothing revolutionary either. The film’s status as a box office bomb hasn’t led to its disappearance from the public eye. Recently, the film has experienced a rehabilitation on Twitter (namely praising its technical aspects) which is disappointing all around — what it does get right isn’t enough to make up for everything it gets wrong. 

Again, the Spielberg production does do new and interesting things! It updates some of the language of the songs to be more politically sound for the moment, it solidifies the character of Anybodys as a trans-coded character (something that always seemed apparent to me but could’ve been dismissed by even the most liberal viewer) and it reorders the songs in ways that increased dramatic irony. The cinematography is gorgeous and deserves to be in the running for an Oscar. DeBose’s performance as Anita is wonderful. But the missteps it takes are still too large for such a meticulously choreographed film. 

Spielberg dared to recast Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 original, as the widowed wife of Doc, who is a white man who owns a drug store where the Jets hang out. Moreno herself has faced controversy regarding anti-Black comments in the wake of the release of “In the Heights” over the summer. Her role in the film was, arguably, useless. It was meant to replace the character of Doc, who is a centerpiece in the growth of the Jets in the original, by positioning Moreno as his old, widowed Puerto Rican wife, which took away from Doc’s original role as actually trying to mentor the Jets boys into being better humans. 

The new role that Moreno inhabits becomes a crutch in the script to reinforce the film’s pathos that interracial love solves racism — which it does not. I think that any attempt to quell racism by appealing to interracial love is lazy and teaches young audiences the wrong thing about what being anti-racist should look like. It speaks volumes about Tony Kushner’s age as a screenwriter (and the fact that few people of color were consulted in the rewriting of Sondheim’s script, a fact clear in the closing credits) that he decided to make this plot change.

Overall, the film is pretty to look at but fails at presenting a historical narrative with relevant current social commentary. It has nothing we have not seen before, in terms of using love as a vehicle for talking about race, in Hollywood. It might win big awards on Oscar night, but it does not deserve them. There are far better films this year that talk about queerness, race, grief and overall issues of representation. 

Hollywood can do much better than this, and I think the onus shouldn’t be on the audience to demand change of Hollywood, especially considering that audiences did ask for production changes. Studios, directors and actors need to take issues like sexual assault and anti-blackness more seriously because it becomes context for art that otherwise would be a joy to consume. “West Side Story” deals with issues that have been relevant since it was first performed on Broadway, but it is disappointing that an attempt to remake the film and update it cannot improve the film in any large way from the original.

Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25 is from New York City. He loves movies and logs all his most recent watches on his letterboxd @Adam0k and is currently trying to find a new alter ego.

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