The 1961 film won 10 Academy Awards, including the first for a Latina, Rita Moreno, who won for best supporting actress. But the film also drew criticism for its depictions of Puerto Ricans, especially the brown face that much of the cast wore, along with its over-the-top accents.
A remake of “West Side Story,” now in theaters and directed by Steven Spielberg, has tried to address some of those issues. The cast is largely made up of Latino actors, including Colombian American Rachel Zegler, who has already become a breakout star for her portrayal of Maria. The actors speak Spanish in the film without subtitles, a nod to an increasingly multicultural America. The film has already received Oscar buzz and stellar reviews.
So what does “West Side Story” have to offer in 2021, when marginalized groups are increasingly pushing to tell their own stories and using social media to seek more authentic representation in media? About US spoke with award-winning Puerto Rican filmmaker and Columbia University professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner about the latest adaptation, and Latinos in cinema.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: How was the original 1961 film received by the Puerto Rican community in New York?
A: There are a number of people that you could say expressed that they felt demeaned and that they felt that it was circulating stereotypes about Puerto Ricans. And I think that perception of the film is not only in the text, it’s also in the context.
Because 1961 is a period where Puerto Ricans were coming in greater numbers to New York after World War II. And by the late 1950s and early 1960s, they had been constituted and recognized as a particular group, and “West Side Story” is in a way the first and still the most influential story portraying Puerto Ricans and telling people who they are and how they behave and what they look like.
So part of the issue with the representation of Puerto Ricans in “West Side Story” is textual and how it circulates stereotypes about Puerto Ricans. Men are gang members, and women are either virginal or spitfires. There was so much public discourse [at the time] about how Puerto Ricans were a kind of problem for the city because they were poor … they’re just people without education, prone to violence, et cetera. That was the public discourse, and into the public discourse comes “West Side Story” to somewhat officialize it and circulate it, not only in the United States but worldwide.
Q: What were some of the problematic elements in the film that people were responding to?
A: In the film, apart from the circulation and enactment of stereotypes, another major critique …by Puerto Ricans, Latinos and others is that there was only one actor, Rita Moreno, who was a Puerto Rican playing a Puerto Rican role.
The other lead characters that were Puerto Rican — Bernardo, who is the head of the Sharks, and Maria, who is the female lead — were both cast as White actors in brown face. And the brown face wasn’t only used for the White actors. It was also used for some of the Latino actors, including Rita Moreno. And that’s how you get the critique of authenticity, that this was supposedly a story that involves Puerto Ricans in New York and what was going on in their lives but the actors themselves were not Puerto Ricans.
The one Puerto Rican character played by a Puerto Rican, Anita, says what people perceive as the most anti-Puerto Rican lyrics in the whole show or film, which is the “America” number. Initially the number contained more offensive language than actually ended up in the film, but still it contained language that people felt was directly demeaning to Puerto Ricans, like Puerto Rico should sink back in the ocean.
It talks about the United States being superior to Puerto Rico, that Puerto Rico was just hurricanes and pregnancies and the United States offers all these opportunities. One of the things that makes “West Side Story” so complex is that at the same time, people also feel tremendous admiration for Rita Moreno, the performer.
She was given a stereotypical role. She was made to wear brown face. She was asked to speak in an accent that nobody has in real life — it’s an exaggerated accent. But despite that, she managed to produce a performance that still exceeded the expectations of the character and what people think Puerto Ricans are capable of. She executed it so well that she killed it basically in that performance.
Q: Lin-Manuel Miranda said he hoped that “In the Heights” would tell a new story about Puerto Ricans in New York. What are your thoughts on his movie coming out in the same year?
A: The strategy of “In the Heights” I think was the biggest mistake of the whole process, because I did see the show and I felt the show was actually richer than the film. There were some adjustments and there was some choices that were made in bringing the show to the cinema that I think weakened the original premise and execution of the show.
One of them was this assumption that the way to reach a diversity of Latinos is by presenting a generic Latinidad. So we’re all kind of represented, we’re all kind of there, but nothing is very specific. And I actually feel strongly as a media historian that that strategy doesn’t work with Latinos at all. I think it’s more effective to try to do a well-told story about a particular community or group than to try to create this idea of a generic Latino that somehow will resonate with everybody, because the first thing that Latinos do as viewers of that kind of media is to say that’s not me, that’s not my group, that has nothing to get them or what have you.
Spielberg, from what I gather and actually what I’ve read Tony Kushner has said, seems to have actually gone the other way. ... They seem to have invested in actually making it more specific and more grounded and more developed, which I feel that “In the Heights” didn’t do. It made it more generic and less specific.
Q: One thing that’s apparent from the trailer for the new movie is that they kept a similar sort of accent [to the 1961 film]. What are your thoughts?
A: The 1961 film makes people have accents that I’ve never heard before. Most people don’t have those accents — they’re exaggerated to underscore racial difference. One of the ways that mass media has figured out to stabilize the racial-intermediate Brown category of Latino is to give people accents.
And often exaggerated accents, and I guess that you can think of that all the way from Ricky Ricardo and “I Love Lucy.” Of course, he was the producer of the whole show, so nobody’s making him do this. But he is exaggerating his accent, because if you listen to a Desi Arnaz interview, you hear that he doesn’t speak that way in his day-to-day life. He exaggerated for comic effect and to underscore his non-American identity.
But it also racializes him as non-White, because if you didn’t hear him talk, he could be from any number of European countries.
So it’s interesting that in one of the pieces I wrote recently that one of the things that Spielberg focused on in his public discourse before the release was that he wanted to make a quote unquote authentic film and focused a lot of his remarks on accents, like the accents had to be right. So he said he hired coaches to teach the actors to speak with the right accent so it was authentic.
And there was a line there in one of the public presentations where he said that this even applied to New York Puerto Ricans, who “might have forgotten where they come from.” But in any event, from what I hear from the trailer, those accents still feel pretty stereotypical to me. But I reserve judgment when I see the entire film in context.
Q: Do you think that “West Side Story” is still a worthwhile story to tell in 2021?
A: I personally wouldn’t want to be telling that story or be consumed by that story. I think the larger issue is that we’re still mostly talking about that story. So if someone wants to take old source material and transform it into something else and provide insight and another perspective on the material, I think that’s what people do in the history of culture.
[Stephen] Sondheim [who wrote the show’s lyrics] in one of his interviews said that one of the great things about the theater, which he felt was different from film, is that every time you stage something, you can change it. And you do change it, because [each time] you’re changing the performer, changing the venue, changing the choreography, changing the costumes — it’s always changing.
So I wouldn’t say that nobody should ever go to that source material or those lyrics or that choreography or that story and not try to do something else with it. But it’s hard to think that this is still what we’re talking about and that there are not a greater range of voices and stories told.
And if I think about what Puerto Rico has been going through for the last decade and a half — the fact that Puerto Ricans right now are experiencing the biggest migration of its modern history. It’s called the “big migration” because hundreds of thousands of people migrated from Puerto Rico to the U.S. as a result of disaster, capitalism and austerity and the handling of the hurricanes and so many things. There are more Puerto Ricans in the United States than in Puerto Rico by a large margin.
And some people have said that exodus is projected to continue over the next few years. And that to me has so many repercussions and is so important that if I had the means and the access to tell stories, I would want to create the possibility to hear about new stories from multiple perspectives and not be talking about the same story, even if it’s a different treatment of the material, as our only reference point. I think that’s really kind of tragic.