Director: Steven Spielberg (USA). Year of Release: 2021
A group of young men dancing and throwing paint pots to each other. As they dance down the road, other young men join them and we hear a familiar hi-hat sound. They are headed for a wall on which we can see a large Puerto Rico flag. The men open their paint pots, take out the brushes that they stole from local stalls (mainly run by Puerto Ricans) and start painting over the flag.
I’ll spare you most of the next 2 ½ hours – it’s West Side Story. Jets and Sharks. I just met a girl called Maria, Tony, Tony, Gee Officer Krupje, fights between White and Puerto Rican inhabitants of one of the poorest areas of Manhattan, tragic ending. Oh, and one of the best scores and possible the best lyrics of any film ever. Props to Leonhard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
I must admit to going into the film with two big reservations. Firstly, I think that Miriam Margolyes is right to ask the question: “why do we need a remake of West Side Story when we have the original?” Secondly, whisper it but I am not a fan of Stephen Spielberg. There, I said it. Whatever, it turns out that the film looks great, especially the singy and dancey bits, and that it’s at least as good as you could expect of it.
So, yes, you should go and see it, not just because of a vague academic interest, but because it looks good, it sounds good, and the libretto is near perfect. So, I’m recommending it. Pack the cinemas. But I do have a slight issue. What is West Side Story’s problem with race?
This was already a problem in the original film 60 years ago, when the very white Natalie Wood was cast as the Puerto Rican heroine Maria. This time round, the Sharks are played by hispanic actors/dancers and there is some acknowledgement of the racism endured by Puerto Ricans in Manhattan (already there in Sondheim’s lyrics for America: “Life is all right in America / If you’re all-white in America).
And yet there is a serious problem that at the same time as acknowledging racism – there are a number of racial epithets uttered by the all-white Jets gang members throughout the film – the main message of the film sails very close to one of All Lives Matter. There is something about gentrification tacked on at the beginning of the film, which I think is there to show that the gang members should fight capitalism not each other, but this is clumsy and has little to do with the main plot.
For most of the time, the Whites and Puerto Ricans are depicted as being at best morally equivalent. Compare and contrast Tony, founding member of the Jets who, after a year in prison, wants to call time on gang fights. Tony’s love for the Puerto Rican Maria is the main driving factor of the plot – but at no time does he challenge his friends’ racism. On the other side, Chino wants to join the Sharks, who are at least doing something to fight racism, but is rebuffed. And yet the hero is the white liberal, not the hispanic anti-racist.
Despite the clear examples of racism that we see on screen – both from the white gang members and the uniformly white police, the film’s main worry is that we can’t just come together and love each other. After all, we’re all sharing the same experiences. The Puerto Ricans are suffering from everyday racism, and the whites (a motley collection of Poles, Irish and Italians) aren’t allowed to carry out their daily racist existence. It’s political correctness gone mad.
West Side Story is famously based on Romeo and Juliet, and it may be my bad memory, but this version seems more loyal to Shakespeare than the original. But there is one significant difference. Romeo and Juliet is a story about “Two households, both alike in dignity”. In West Side Story, and particularly in this version, the white working class do not remotely benefit from their conditions, but to suggest that they suffer the same problems as Puerto Rican immigrants is at best insensitive.
I repeat, none of this makes West Side Story a bad film. It is spectacular, probably more so in this version than in 1961. And please go along and enjoy this as a film which is worth watching. But just as film reflects the society that produces it, we lose nothing from noticing that West Side Story comes out of an unequal society and film industry which would prefer to spend more time with the Jets than the Sharks. Watch. Enjoy. But keep your critical distance.