Steven Spielberg’s first-ever musical film of his career, West Side Story, brings to life 1950s New York through a more modern lens than the original and with authentic Latinx representation. Starring newcomer Colombian-American Rachel Zegler (María), Ansel Elgort (Tony), Afro-Puerto Rican Ariana DeBose (Anita), David Alvarez (Bernardo), and Rita Moreno (Valentina), the Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale centers two young teens who fall in love amid a turf gang war between the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks. While it follows the 1957 musical more closely than the 1961 film (which starred Moreno as Anita), this new adaptation managed to seemingly do the impossible and shine brighter and bigger than either.
Immediately, I appreciated how Spielberg corrected the flaws that made many in the Latinx community, including myself, wary about the film being remade. The original West Side Story, which won 10 Academy Awards in the year of its release, nevertheless became infamous for its use of brownface on all the actors who portrayed Puerto Rican characters, including Moreno. And not all of them were even Latinx, including Natalie Wood, who played Maria and was of Russian descent.
This time around, I was moved and stunned by the amount of diversity Spielberg brought to the screen. In his hands and with the help of Moreno as executive producer, we become closer to the truth, a Latinx community that is not portrayed as a monolith in any sense of the word and that becomes more joyful and vibrant because of it.
Not only is every Puerto Rican character played by a Latinx actor, but you also see a huge range of skin tones and races, including Afro-Puerto Rican DeBose. In all of her gorgeous costumes, she radiates on screen, whether singing, dancing, or riffing with the other characters, especially headlining one of the biggest numbers of the entire runtime, “America.” She made that sequence feel larger than life, much more than the original, leading her women into the middle of a busy intersection and roping the entire neighborhood into this incredibly choreographed, fast-paced ode to Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Opposite her, Zegler, who was 17 when they started filming, feels so much at home in her role of María that I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she appeared on-screen. Her acting feels completely vulnerable, joyful, and natural, plus she had great comedic timing, and her voice stuns with an opera-like quality in every song. Her and DeBoses’s six-minute rendition of “A Boy Like That / I Have A Love” is the absolute highlight of the film and almost moved me to tears.
And of course, who could overlook Moreno’s performance as Valentina, the widow of the classic WSS character Doc played by Ned Glass in the 1961 film? Her performance of “Somewhere”, originally a Tony and María duet, feels much more heart-wrenching and moving in her aged but still powerful voice. And I loved her sweet, protective interactions with Tony, and how her Puerto Rican identity complicated and raised the stakes near the end of the story.
Everything just felt elevated. The cinematography, the choreography, the historical context, the way English translations aren’t given when Spanish is spoken (and intentional move on Spielberg’s part) — it was watching magic through song and dance unfold before my eyes.
The characters became three-dimensional, complex, and more relevant to issues both then and now. María is more independent and free-spirited showcased even in the smaller details like wearing red lipstick even though Bernardo doesn’t approve. Anita fights racism from the white Jets and within her own Puerto Rican community and when she tells the Jets she’s a proud Puertorriqueña you feel that truth emanating through every fiber of her being. The film also doesn’t shy away from colorism in our community, machismo, and the pressures of assimilation while also tackling racism, xenophobia, and bigotry in a way that feels relevant to this day. Each detail is accounted for and I didn’t even feel like I had been sitting down for over two hours because the film does not drag at all, a testament to Spielberg and the entire cast.
I’ve always had a life-long love for this story and the original film. And after the release of WSS was originally delayed for over a year, I didn’t know if we were going to get the end product we wanted. But walking out of the theater this week, I’d never felt prouder of my people, my community, our many cultures, our languages, and our lives. For the first time, it felt like we’d finally reclaimed a story that had brought us joy as much as hurt. The wait for this film, as long as it felt, was completely worth it.
West Side Story comes out in theaters on December 10, 2021.