By Gemma Curry

The Hollywood tradition of whitewashing has spanned the decades, including but not limited to the musical genre. The original 1961 West Side Story movie immediately springs to mind when thinking of one of the many whitewashed musicals. From brown-face to ignoring Puerto Rican heritage, the movie has been criticised countless times. The plot of the film is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette, but instead of ‘fair Verona’ it is set on the streets of New York. The movie follows two rival gangs, one white (The Jets) and one Puerto Rican (The Sharks), and the racial division between the two. However, at its centre it’s about how love can overcome, as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria break racial barriers in their inter-racial relationship.

Tony and Maria in the 1961 version, were in fact played by two white actors, with Natalie Wood merely coated in fake tan to appear Latina. Which asks the question how can the film make a real statement about love overcoming racism when the film is racist itself?

That’s where Steven Spielberg steps in, to finally produce his revival of the iconic musical. He has discussed how this has been something he has thought about since he was a boy in Phoenix listening to the soundtrack, which he said was “the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home.” The set design, costuming, music, and raw talent of all the performers allowed his vision to come to life. The film is Spielberg’s first musical film, seeing him once again take on a new genre, but he has continuously shown his musicality through his infamous soundtracks for his other movies. So the greatness of this film is not surprising considering the passion he brought to the project. Directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise were able to take West Side Story from the Broadway stage to the silver screen, and now Spielberg has brought it again to a modern audience who can see themselves now represented in the film rather than white people posing as them.

Spielberg rejected the brownface from the original musical and also brought more authenticity throughout the movie. All of the members of the Sharks were played by Latin-American actors and are even seen to speak and sing their native language, which was missing from the original, including having the Sharks sing the national anthem of Puerto Rico – La Borinqueña. Spielberg did bring one major aspect from the 1961 version by featuring the legendary Rita Moreno. Moreno won the academy award for best supporting actress in 1962 for her portray of Anita, and in the 2021 picture she takes on a new role of Valentina, replacing Doc as his widower. Moreno even sings the renowned ballad ‘Somewhere’, sang in the original by Tony and Maria.

West Side Story (2021) has had great success this award season. Ariana DeBose won best supporting actress for her outstanding performance as Anita at the BAFTAS, Golden Globes, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild, and most recently at the Academy Awards. DeBose has swept up awards this season, following in the footsteps of Rita Moreno who she credited in her Academy Award Speech for being a “divine inspiration,” and for paving the way for “tons of Anita’s like me.” The Oscars 2022 may be now remembered for other moments, but DeBose deserves credit for making history as the first queer Afro-Latina Woman to win an Academy Award for acting. She powerfully references this in her speech saying to the audience that “you see a queer, openly queer woman of colour, an Afro Latina who found her strength in life through art.” The film also won other awards including Best Picture- Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes, and Best Actress – Musical or Comedy which was awarded to the incredible Rachel Zegler and many more.

We have seen in recent years the musical film and musicals on stage make strides to have better diversity and no longer have the association of being a whitewashed art, with productions such as Hamilton and In the Heights, however there is still a long way to go. This new version of West Side Story is evidence that a musical can have great success and have representation which will hopefully be a lesson that both Hollywood and Broadway take on board going forward. The film has got controversy surrounding it, most notably with the casting of Ansel Elgort who has been facing sexual assault allegations the past couple of years, but we can still see how the film is important in the fight for representation in musical theatre.

Photo Credit: Myke Simon via Unsplash