The same day as I was watching the remake of West Side Story in Kolkata, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov were receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.
Later that weekend, I listened to Ressa’s speech online. And oddly, somewhere in her words I heard echoes of the musical I had just seen.
When she warned us against a “virus of lies” pitting us against each other, “bringing out fears, anger, hate”, I saw the Sharks and Jets duking it out on the streets of the upper West Side. When she talked about “standing on the rubble of the world that was”, I remembered the opening scene of West Side Story—the neighbourhoods being bulldozed to make way for the Lincoln Center while the gangs fought over their scrap of land, not realising they were all doomed to be pulverised by the wrecking ball of gentrification. When Ressa said “anger and hate spread faster and further than facts”, I could see the bodies of members of both gangs lying in the salt factory, stabbed during the rumble in a moment of hot-headed fury. And when Ressa talked about the “Filipino idea of utang na loob—literally, the debt from within—at its best, a system of paying it forward”, it reminded me of the character of Valentina, the frail, elderly shop owner in West Side Story, the one who tried to leave the neighbourhood better than she found it.
I must admit I was unenthusiastic at the prospect of the remake. West Side Story was never a favourite musical. Irish/Polish gangs pitted against Puerto Ricans didn’t resonate with me all the way over in Kolkata. Anyway, Romeo-Juliet stories depressed me. But I loved the music. As an impoverished grad student in the US, I remember buying a second-hand LP of West Side Story from the dollar bin of the record store. But still, it was not a musical that I thought needed to be remade, certainly not by a storyteller of the calibre of Steven Spielberg. With all the stories out there in the world, did we need to tell West Side Story all over again, a story already weighed down by 10 Oscars?
Some of its old problems are easier to undo than others. In the 1961 film, most of the “Puerto Ricans” were white actors in brown face. The lead role of Maria was played in the film by the very non-Hispanic Natalie Wood. Even Rita Moreno, who was actually Puerto Rican, had to wear brown face because she was deemed too light-skinned. She said in an interview that when she wondered why all Puerto Ricans had to be the same colour, the makeup man told her, “What?Are you a racist?” It reminds me of Simi Garewal being daubed with dark paint to play the Adivasi woman in Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri (Days And Nights In The Forest). Now it’s a little hard to watch that film without cringing a bit at the mahua-drinking, hot-headed sultry Adivasi stereotypes. This time around in West Side Story, Maria is played by an actor of Colombian descent and while the Sharks are not all Puerto Rican, they are all Latinx at least. No brown face is needed.
But other problems are just baked into the story itself. It felt dated, filled with too many ethnic stereotypes, even when it was originally staged in 1957. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim once admitted in an interview that he was not sure he was suited for the project. “I’ve never been poor and I’ve never even met a Puerto Rican,” he said.
Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, cannot undo that. Spielberg travelled to the University of Puerto Rico to meet students and faculty there to solicit their views. They were told how upsetting it was to have Puerto Rico described as an “island of tropical diseases” that should be allowed to “sink back in the ocean”. Admittedly, the context is a spunky song where the men and women debate the pros and cons of their new American lives, where the women relish the independence (and washing machines) while the men warn “life is all right in America if you’re all-white in America”. The new film version, while not exactly whitewashing the old lyrics, drops some of the more cringeworthy lines.
Instead of bending over backwards to be politically correct and woke, Spielberg and Kushner employ a different tack. They don’t cut the Jets down to size, instead they fill in the Sharks with more details. Now they have backstories and dreams. Bernardo is a boxer, Chino is studying accounting, Anita is a seamstress with dreams of opening her own shop.
More striking, when the new film opens with the Jets whooping and dancing their way through the neighbourhood like they own it, the Sharks respond with the defiant Puerto Rican anthem La Borinqueña, their clenched fists in the air. Even more strikingly, instead of Spanish being sprinkled all over the script like seasoning, there are chunks of dialogue that are entirely in Spanish. We follow along by context but without subtitles. That simple act levels the playing field between the two sides more than anything else. It’s especially interesting to watch it in an Indian cinema hall where the English dialogue comes with subtitles but the Spanish lines are left alone. “We kept working on this thing because there was such an enormous feeling that—it wasn’t like, ‘Oh god, we’re going to get canceled if somebody says the wrong word’—but this deep desire to get it right and true,” Kushner told Time magazine.
That was my greatest fear with the revamped West Side Story, that in the anxiety to be woke it would become stultified, a musical with leaden feet. In fact, it opens with the caveat that the film contains some racial slurs that have to be taken in the context of its time period. And it still has its problems. Puerto Rican commentators have pointed out that just casting Latinx actors is not the same as casting Puerto Ricans as Puerto Ricans. An advisory board cannot supplant the importance of directors and storytellers rooted in the community. “Spielberg would better serve this community by reading, developing, and producing Latino scripts rather than trying to resurrect and purge the sins of the past,” wrote Aurora Flores-Hostos for The Latinx Project. The film turns a tomboy character from the original version into a transgender character played by the non-binary actor Iris Menas. That’s a little too out there for some Middle Eastern countries, which have banned the film. India just bleeps out some key anatomical words pertaining to the character.
Yet, despite all this, somehow this West Side Story works for me. Its release was delayed by a year because of the pandemic but it still feels contemporary, and not just because the issues it grapples with—xenophobia, immigration, assimilation, race—are still hot-button, if not more so. It works because it shows us how to re-imagine a classic without losing its heart and soul. Rita Moreno was the blazing heart of the 1961 version, winning an Oscar for her fiery Anita. In 2021, she has become the soul of the new film, the keeper of its conscience. As Valentina, the Puerto Rican widow of the white drug store owner, Doc, she’s the one who shows us a way out of the bitterness. West Side Story does not have a happy ending but Moreno’s Valentina keeps trying. As do the likes of Maria Ressa, who said she has had to post bail 10 times in two years just to keep doing her job. But she keeps doing it. And when Ressa asked the audience to close their eyes and “imagine the world as it should be, a world of peace, trust and empathy, bringing out the best that we can be”, I could hear 89-year-old Rita Moreno singing in her hushed voice:
We’ll find a new way of living
We’ll find a way of forgiving
They were both goosebump moments.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.