The Case Against Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story

Hide your theater kids for this one.

Steven Spielberg will return to the Oscars this Sunday in recognition of “The Fablemans,” his addition to a trend of wistful semi-autobiographical bombs like “Sweet Pizza” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” It’s an entertaining enough film about cinema, albeit an impressive achievement given its two-and-a-half-hour running time. However, this is definitely one of the less interesting nominees of this year’s ceremony.

In light of this oversight, it would be wise to revisit Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. The film, like The Fablemen, is built on top of a nostalgic core that has cheated its ticket to the Oscars time and time again. In stark contrast to The Fablemans, West Side Story is a film that examines problematic aspects of its period, treating them in a manner reminiscent of John Mulaney – that is, embarrassedly white.

“West Side Story” retells “Romeo and Juliet” with Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) as the main characters, respectively. Spielberg reimagines the Montagues and Capulets as warring street gangs, white jets and Puerto Rican sharks fighting for control of the eponymous Upper West Side, hence the title. In essence, West Side Story is yet another story about racial conflict, written by straight-laced white men with a simplistic moral message that only they could find satisfactory.

Although I don’t like the original Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare understood that by putting the Montagues and Capulets in the same position and hiding the reasons for their enmity, it becomes easier to portray their enmity as senseless and destructive.

“West Side Story” enter racism into the mix, making the Jets far more unappealing than the Sharks. The Jets constantly taunt the Sharks with racial slurs, destroy their business and community, and even try to rape Anita (Arianna DeBose), the girlfriend of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez).

In almost all cases of violence or harassment, the Jetas are the aggressors. This dynamic paints sharks as prey and jets as predators. For example, Tony — Jet — begins the film, recently released from prison, nearly beating Shark to death in a street fight. But that’s okay, because the movie insists that he’s a changed man who apparently had his redeeming American History X moment in prison. While the fight in question is part of the film’s central feud between the Sharks and the Jets, it perfectly demonstrates how Spielberg’s reluctance to address the racism inherent in his source material leads to the proliferation of increasingly egregious notions of behavior of white supremacy.

If the film had acknowledged the built-in racism, Spielberg’s adaptation might have been a little more successful. But after Tony is shot and killed at the end of the movie, Maria angrily punishes both the Sharks and the Jets, making a false, nonsensical equivalence that registers as a decision only a white writing team could make.

It is absurd that we are expected to empathize with racists and rapists. It is absurd that we should believe they are as bad as the racial minorities they terrorize. It is absurd that we are supposed to believe, accept and support an affair between former racists Tony and Maria. Not to mention that the two characters had only known each other for two days and Tony killed his new girlfriend’s brother.

Spielberg makes no successful effort to convince us why this thing will ever succeed. In his attempt to replicate the scene’s spectacle, Spielberg opted for bright lights and sinking glare so obnoxious you’d think JJ Abrams was driving a Ford F-150 with the high beams on in the background. Every light, even colored light, ends up hitting the actors as white light, sterilizing the overall look of the film. It destroys all the intimacy of Tony and Maria’s relationship, taking it from the realm of the funny to the bars.

Unfortunately, only superficial thoughts were given to how to retell “West Side Story” 60 years later. The Hollywood policy that gave me the right to remake this classic musical gave Spielberg the right to reimagine any element of the story. Thus, the audience was left with only a re-sung bit of racism.

Contact Andre Garcia at [email protected]

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