Spielberg’s West Side Story Is Not the ‘Progressive’ Remake We Hoped For

By Christina Horacio, Copyeditor

With the release of this year’s Oscar nominations, Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story has returned to the spotlight. The remake received seven nominations, including Best Picture. However, the lack of significant criticism surrounding the film troubles me, as it has once again failed to cast a Puerto Rican Maria. Taking the racist history of the film into consideration, it is disheartening that Spielberg––another white director––would make the same mistake decades later. 

As a young Puerto Rican kid living in the Bronx, my father gleefully memorized much of the choreography of the original 1961 film adaptation of the broadway musical, West Side Story. He did so mostly because he saw himself reflected in the storyline, which follows two New York City-based gangs divided by race; “the Jets” being the white gang, and “the Sharks” being the Puerto Ricans. There is a long-held feud between the two that escalates after Tony, a former Jet, starts seeing Maria, the younger sister of the designated leader of the Sharks, Bernardo. Tony and Maria struggle to continue their romantic relationship in the midst of the violence between the aforementioned gangs.

When my father shared the movie with me in his adulthood, he told me how much he wished the Sharks actually consisted of real Puerto Ricans. Since race is positioned at the forefront of the film, it is quite shocking to learn that the 1961 film adaptation almost exclusively cast white actors for the roles of the Sharks, effectively putting them in brown face. Rita Moreno, who played the role of Anita, was the only Puerto Rican cast. Even then, Moreno was forced to speak in an exaggerated accent and wear darker makeup. 

The film relied on many other racist stereotypes, illustrating Latina women in one of two ways: ‘pure’ and ‘virginal,’ or oversexualized and outspoken. Latino men were characterized as violent and territorial. This was incredibly discouraging to many Puerto Ricans, as the 1961 adaptation is recorded as the first major film to recognize Puerto Ricans living in America, especially after Puerto Ricans officially became U.S. citizens in 1917. 

As my father danced about the living room, he yelled “They shoulda casted me!” We laughed, but I couldn’t help feeling angry that this was the only representation he had as a kid in the 60s. I earnestly hoped that one day we would watch a reboot in which we could both see ourselves on the big screen. 

Last December, that much-anticipated reboot materialized, as Spielberg released his remake. Even though my dad and I were eager to see the updated version, with the story’s previous ties to racism, it is sensible why others would be divided on how to react when news broke that Spielberg, a white man, would be leading the remake. 

Amarís Rios ’24, a Puerto Rican musical theater major at Emerson, reflected on this. She said, “I saw the original motion picture of West Side Story and, respectfully, that’s all I really had to see after that. The plot is unoriginal and overrated. Poor minority girl meets a charming white savior and they never live happily ever after…Not to mention why are we still, 50 years later, making updated versions of a movie that is fundamentally flawed? It cannot be fixed. It started racist and it will forever be racist.” 

However, when it was revealed that all of the actors in the reboot are of Latinx heritage, there was excitement amongst Latinx viewers. There was this hope that perhaps this story, which is deeply flawed as Rios suggested, could actually be fixed. And with the frontrunner, Maria, finally being played by a Latina actress named Rachel Zegler, there was all the more enthusiasm.

Zegler has spoken extensively on the opportunity to be the first Latina to play Maria, who was previously played by white actress, Natalie Wood. “Being the first Latina to play her on screen, that was a huge moment. My Latin heritage does inform me in a very real way — I walked through the world differently than Natalie Wood did,” Zegler said, in an interview with NBC News.

Zegler makes a valid point in saying that she is able to better portray the role because of the experiences she lived that are exclusive to Latina women. However, it should be emphasized that Zegler is not actually a Puerto Rican woman, but rather of Colombian and Polish descent, which gravely disappointed me, my dad, and surely many others. And although she is a Latina, this is still an issue of which Zegler and Spielberg have yet to address. 

Spielberg, as a white man deciding to remake a historically racist story, had the responsibility to get it right. I struggle to even defend Spielberg choosing to direct this, as Latinx people should have the agency to tell their own stories—especially as a mere 4.2 percent of directors working on the top-grossed films, from 2007 to 2019, were of Latinx descent.  He had all the resources to cast every single actor authentically, and still chose not to. His failure to do this plays into the dangerous narrative that all Latinx people are the same. It promotes the misconception that regardless of the clear difference in culture, all Latinx people have the same experience. 

I have been asked by many non-Latinx people if I am from another Latinx country, with most assuming Mexico. When I corrected them, I was routinely hit with the response; “Aren’t they all the same?” Because of that, it feels like a stinging slap in the face to have Spielberg adhere to the ideology that we are indistinguishable from one another, in regards to casting. It also sends the message that we should be grateful that we are even getting a Latina Maria, rather than a white woman in brownface. But as a Puerto Rican woman, I refuse to accept the lowest-hanging fruit. 

I have never, at least knowingly, seen a Puerto Rican woman who resembled me on screen. In that way, it felt like a sour betrayal from Zegler as well, to take a role that was not fundamentally hers—not on the basis of talent, as Zegler is undoubtedly so, but identity. Hearing her speak about the importance of accurate representation, knowing she is not Puerto Rican, was actually quite heartbreaking. 

Rios also spoke more specifically on the decision to cast Zegler as Maria. “[Zegler is] Latina, we can’t take that away from her. She did a phenomenal job, but at this point, I’m wondering… does Hollywood have a vendetta against Puerto Rican women? They had options, is all I’m saying. The Broadway community is more diverse than we give it credit, we just need people to open the doors. Why settle when you can just do it right?” Rios said.

‘Doing it right’ would’ve been taking the time to find a Puerto Rican actress with just as much, if not more, talent. And while it is true that many minorities were employed, misrepresenting Maria still has major consequences. As Rios said, there needs to be an emphasis on opening doors for all Puerto Rican actors to actually succeed—not just within Hollywood, but in smaller communities like Emerson College as well.

Similarly to the industry, Emerson College is a predominantly white institution, which can make it quite difficult for minorities to be seen, heard, and genuinely appreciated. Rios reflected on this struggle, relaying one of her first experiences within Emerson’s theater program. She said, “The first week I got to Emerson, one of my instructors told me “Don’t get your hopes up about summer stock auditions; a lot of playhouses are opting out of doing In the Heights.”

The instructor was non-Latinx, and referenced the show In the Heights, as its plot is focused on the Latinx community of New York. It’s hard to refute the fact that this was a racially-motivated comment, given Rios’ identity—which brings up another important part of the discussion. 

Latinx actors should not be pigeon-holed or limited in such a way. There must be a balance. Yes, Latinx roles should only be offered to the appropriate Latinx actors, as in the case of West Side Story. But it is also important not to restrict Latinx people to these roles only, especially when there is a surplus of roles that are not race-specific. In my eyes, that is the solution. Not remaking a fundamentally flawed story again to include an authentic Puerto Rican Maria. What we are asking for is to not only be included, but to be accurately celebrated in a space in which we have historically not been.