If you want to see Latinxs get heated, just bring up West Side Story. It’s a love it or hate it or hate to love it or love to hate it sort of thing and that means there was lots of digital ink spilled about Steven Speilberg’s re-make. So, did it right the wrongs of the past and celebrate Puerto Rican Latinidad? Or did it play into tired stereotypes and continue the tradition of Anglos feeling entitled to define Latinx stories? Can it do all those things? Latinas disagreed and that’s a good thing! After all, we’re not a monolith as you may have heard us say before. So to help make sense of it all (and West Side Story in particular), here are literally more than a dozen Latinas writing about one of the most iconic films to feature our community.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story review: A Better Depiction of Puerto Ricans, Correcting Many of the Harmful Stereotypes of the Original
In a measured review, Puerto Rican Josie Meléndez Hernández writes for the Mujerista, “The original gave way to a stereotypical view of Puerto Ricans and our culture, which has affected how we are portrayed in the media since then. This time around, with Spielberg at the helm, it is safe to say that many of the harmful pieces of the first adaptation were patched up. As a result, the 2021 film is better than the version from 1961, not only because Spielberg poured so much passion into the craft but because it has a better depiction of Puerto Ricans.” Read her full review.
For Diandra Reviews It All, Diandra Rivera sums it up this way, “Visually stunning and, virtuously, more rectifying, West Side Story 2021 becomes a classic in its own right. While there will be varying opinions on how well it represents Puerto Ricans and Latinos, I understand. Again, as an under-represented and severely oppressed community, we do have the right to not only fight for a seat at the table but also decide what we want to eat. Yet, I genuinely fell in love with the overall romance of the film. West Side Story, like Romeo and Juliet, lives on throughout the decades because it is about love and how society’s hatefulness may crush it but it cannot extinguish it.” Read her full review.
Rosa Parra of Latinx Lens also has mixed feelings but really shouts out the cast, noting, “The film collectively feels cohesive and entertaining, thanks to the directing, but most importantly, due to its superb acting. The characters are given depth, substance and development. DeBose’s Anita is easily the best thing in the film. She understood the assignment and submitted extra credit. Her charisma is off the charts. She’s magnetic, beautiful, talented and unbelievably captivating. I can’t imagine the pressure she must have been under since she’s the only cast member to depict a character previously played by an actor who’s involved in the movie. Yet she delivers an awards-worthy performance.” Read her full review.
Lots of people had issues with the accents but Kate Sánchez, EIC of But Why Tho? A Geek Community was the first to get it down in writing and up on Rotten Tomatoes. She writes, “Each and every speaking Puerto Rican character speaks with a thick accent, stretched to the hyperbolic proportion made famous by Rita Moreno, who herself has commented on it as not being a “true” accent. While the accent itself is frustrating as someone who grew up surrounded by Spanish accents, it’s the jarring back and forth of Spanish spoken with an accent and English spoken with an accent and nothing really feeling real. While some characters can carry their accent into their singing voices with ease, like Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo, and stand out powerfully because of it, it’s the film’s lead, Maria, who falters under the weight of exaggerated rolling r’s and high notes.” Read her full review.
Ileana Meléndez writes an epic takedown of the film for Full Circle Cinema. For example: “This misguided spin on Romeo and Juliet oversees a historically complicated power dynamic between the United States and Puerto Rico. In spite of West Side Story being sold as a step forward in Latine representation, the culture portrayed in the film is ornamental. From the very first scene, everything about Puerto Ricans is secondary to the white experience. There is not enough razzle-dazzle in the world that could erase the blatantly offensive accents and gratuitous violence inflicted upon the Puerto Rican community. The incessant use of old racial slurs feels unnecessary and downright aggressive.” Read her full review.
Also not feeling it is Julianna Perez of The Art of Feeling. She writes, “Steven Spielberg’s reimagined version of the 1961 musical feels unnecessary. Though he tries his best, Spielberg doesn’t add anything useful to the narrative and even when the movie gets close to making a solid point (about colorism in the Latin community), he abandons the thought before we get any substance.” Read her full review.
On her YouTube Channel, Kristen Maldonado hosts Josie Meléndez Hernández in this conversation between two Puerto Rican film critics. The takeaway? Well, as Maldonado says, “This story is just so freaking depressing – nothing good happens for any of these people but especially for the Latino people. The best moments were seeing the whole combination of the choreography and the costumes and the cinematography coming together in all these big musical numbers like ‘America.’” Watch the full conversation.
For the Women’s Media Center, Dr. Frances Negrón-Muntaner gives us the cultural importance of the film, detailing how West Side Story is “a watershed moment in visualizing race in the United States. The movie was the first major—and still the most widely seen and exported—U.S. cultural product to recognize Puerto Ricans as a distinct Latino group in the United States… [It] widely popularized racist and sexist stereotypes that continue to shape how the world sees Puerto Ricans and how they see themselves. For many, West Side Story has been nothing less than a founding trauma that plays incessantly, as if in an endless loop.” Read her full piece.
For Latino Rebels, our Cristina Escobar muses, “Oh, West Side Story. What are we going to do with you? You’re like our tío‘s first wife who won’t stop showing up at family functions. And here you are making this Christmas all about you… [This West Side Story] continues the original’s tradition of advancing a dangerous narrative even as it offers Latinx people some important opportunities. In the end, it’s a film by and for white guys, and I’d rather watch something else.” Read her full review.
Aurora Flores-Hostos walks us through her experience seeing the film for The Latinx Project, noting “What with all the media hoopla, Spielberg’s rep, and the righteous press about “getting it right,” I expected better. In the end, you need more than just an advisory board. You need writers, directors, and producers. We need our stories told, our way. This was a good try, but I still felt they were trying to insert square pegs into round holes.” Read her full piece.
Cup of Soul’s Kathia Woods is also enamored with the performances, noting in particular, “If there’s one standout from West Side Story, it’s Ariana Debose. She shines in every frame, and what a gift for little brown bunheads to see an Afro-Latina front and center in such a big production. She simple is the epitome of a breakout star, and one hopes that Hollywood lets her shine more instead of shelving her like her predecessor.” She concludes, “West Side Story 2021 is its own thing. It’s a gift for those who love musicals and the escape we need.” Read her full review.
POPSUGAR Latina’s Johanna Ferreira raves about the film. She’s particularly impressed that there’s “a refreshing amount of Puerto Rican pride displayed throughout the film that would leave any Latinx viewer overwhelmed with Latinx orgullo — even if you’re not Puerto Rican. This is precisely what lacked in the 1961 film, which is understandable considering Puerto Ricans that lived in NYC at the time were experiencing extreme racism and pressures to assimilate. This version is a lot more reflective of how we view ourselves as a community today, which is why I truly believe we needed this remake more than any of us ever knew.” Read her full review.
For HipLatina, Sofía Aguilar also loved it. For HipLatina, she writes, “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… 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.” Read her full review.