Steven Spielberg Faces Concerns About Problematic Portrayal of Puerto Ricans in ‘West Side Story’

Lead Photo: WEST SIDE STORY, Rita Moreno, 1961.
WEST SIDE STORY, Rita Moreno, 1961.
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Steven Spielberg’s new take on the 1957 music Broadway musical West Side Story is set to start production this summer. Already the lead cast has been announced, including a trio of Latinos in the lead roles (a far cry from the Anglo cast we saw in the 1961 film adaptation) and Rita Moreno is set to appear in the film, playing a totally original character. But audiences are still ambivalent about a remake of the film because of the complicated relationship Puerto Ricans have with the outdated material. It’s been revealed that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner are more than aware of the concerns and held a town hall-style dialogue in Puerto Rico to address concerns.

The town hall took place a month ago at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan with sixty invited students, faculty and local critics in attendance. Several people who attended were curious to hear Spielberg’s response to continued concerns about how the film and Broadway musical’s problematic portrayals of Puerto Ricans – many of which are included in this parody video – would be addressed. After nearly 90 minutes of polite conversation, theater history and UPR acting professor Isel Rodriguez asked the pair how they were planning to deal with offensive lyrics in the song “America,” which cast Puerto Rico in a negative light.

One verse in the song, for example, paints the island as a disease-ridden hub of violence and natural disasters: “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases / Always the hurricanes blowing, Always the population growing / And the money owing, And the babies crying / And the bullets flying.” For critics like Rodriguez, lyrics like these raise a pressing question: why reboot this musical at such a sensitive and devastating time for the island? And furthermore, will this reboot correct some of the inaccurate depictions of the past?

Kushner was visibly uncomfortable with Rodriguez’s question, blaming the lyrics on original Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim, before handing it off to Spielberg. The director himself failed to answer the question, instead emphasizing that the film will speak to and counter today’s anti-immigrant climate, and that dialect coaches are working with the cast to get the right Puerto Rican accents. None of the assembled members felt the two directly addressed the concerns.

Puerto Rico has been through hell in the last year, but its difficulties have done nothing to stem Boricuas’ pride and love for their island. This makes a song like “America” sting all the more. As Puerto Rican film critic Mario Alegre explained, “The musical always presented it like, ‘Screw the island. I love America.’ But every time there’s been a massive migration from Puerto Rico, it’s been over economic austerity. The musical never explained that it was out of necessity.” Rodriguez agrees: “No one leaves this island without sobbing. Three hundred thousand people left the island after Maria and the scene at the airport was like a funeral. No one wants to leave. This is paradise.”

Unfortunately, Spielberg and Kushner’s remarks did not suggest that they will be addressing some of the concerns with their source material, and it’s doubtful they’ll change much from the original Broadway show or movie. West Side Story looks to remain the problematic story it’s always been.

A release date for West Side Story has yet to be confirmed