Racial controversy surrounds Steven Spielberg’s Westside Story

Ava Smith, Social Media Manager

The recent remake of Westside Story, a musical that was released in 1957 with a well-known movie adaptation from 1961, premiered in theaters December 10, 2021. Westside Story is a forbidden love story, following Maria from The Sharks and Tony from The Jets. The two are a part of rival gangs, and their relationship is rejected by their family and friends. From the sounds of it, the remake seems promising, and could easily be a major success. However, there have been multiple controversies following both adaptations of Westside Story

The 1961 adaptation has been criticized for using brown face on white actors playing members of The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. Only one Puerto Rican actress, Rita Moreno, was hired for the movie. Everyone else was white. 

Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the movie, said in an interview with HuffPost that she even had to put on darker makeup.

“It was like putting mud on my face… I remember saying to the makeup man one day… ‘My God! Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French, Spanish…’ And it’s true, we are many different colors,” said Moreno. 

She also noted that Anita’s accent in the film “didn’t make any sense,” and was not how Puerto Ricans spoke in real life. 

While the recent adaptation does not include these racial issues, there is still criticism within the casting. Ansel Elgort, who played Tony, has several sexual assault and sexual harassment cases against him. All of the women reporting their experiences with him were minors when the incidents occurred. People are upset that someone with those allegations is not being held accountable, and instead being starred in a Steven Spielberg movie. The movie has also been banned in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar for including a transgender character apart of The Jets named Anybodys. Because of this, these countries did not grant Westside Story a release certificate and requested that some parts of the film were cut. Despite this, Anybodys remains in the film. 

Westside Story could have avoided a large majority of these controversies if it had better casting and diversity. After a good amount of time has passed, another remake without these issues could be released, giving this interesting and promising story justice. Or, we could leave it in the past and accept it for what it is. Either way, people will always be divided on their opinions of Westside Story, and it opens up an interesting discussion about a variety of issues, in particular racial casting and diversity in cinema.