West Side Story has always been armchair anthropology. What is Armchair Anthropology? It’s when someone doesn’t do their immersive fieldwork to understand someone else’s perspective. Instead, they create narratives based on assumptions of the other. Meaning, someone decided they have the most knowledge and expertise to write about someone else from their couches or cushioned armchairs. At best, it’s the equivalent of having someone tell you their cruise trip stories and claiming to be an expert on the cultures of those people based on the beaches the ship docked in.
Prominent examples would include, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written in 1899, inspired the film Apocalypse Now, released in 1979; and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book written in 1894, inspired numerous film adaptations by the same name, had its most recent release in 2016.
Let us not forget that WSS is at its core is another rendition of William Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy, Romeo & Juliet, written in 1597. A pair of star-crossed lovers fighting to make their love survive against all odds. This isn’t the problem. Frankly, thank goodness this story has been retold thousands of times over and is still being taught in high school. Hormonal teenagers doing what hormonal teenagers do best… be dramatic. It’s still relatable. I’m all in for having teens learn about how to better handle their actions and the subsequent consequences that may occur from them.
The problem is the adaptation of the play via West Side Story. How does this version of the play sanction being armchair anthropology? Mainly because it was created by two white men, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, who wrote the Sharks based on the stereotypes of a group of people whose experience they cannot claim. The screenplay, book, music, and lyrics were all written by white men.
So do these men have the most knowledge and expertise to tell the stories of Puerto Ricans of NYC? Of course not! They are again, building characters based on the stereotypes of what white Americans believe to be true and shrouded by their own experiences. Especially when most of the casted Sharks are in brown-face and cast a white woman to play the lead who is supposed to be Puerto Rican.
This doesn’t mean I don’t absolutely love this musical. I’m a musical theatre kid and thank West Side Story for giving me an opportunity to see ‘brown’ folx on stage/camera. Its masterful choreography by the incredible Robbins is its signature highlight and making it a contemporary story of the time, the 1950s, is why this work is groundbreaking. Through Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, this original play grapples with some topics that transcends to today, including immigration and racial tensions. Using Romeo & Juliet as the backdrop works flawlessly as an analogy to such named issues all while giving us the Hollywood love story.
I watched the new adaptation during its opening weekend and I’m still pondering its intention. In an era where we are experiencing a racial reckoning, how did we still end up again with 2 white men remaking this musical?
There are so many layers as to why this movie didn’t work for me, but I’ll stick to the racial issues and its disservice to our nation’s progress. I may be taking the unpopular road here, as this film also made former President Obama’s top list. I’d love to talk to him and hear his perspective as he is also a biracial person who isn’t of Hispanic or Latin descent.
Let me start with what worked. Casting is fine. Both gangs are stacked with very talented people. Riff and Bernardo, played by Mike Faist and David Alavarez respectively, are beautiful dancers and it shows. I wish they used Anita, Ariana DeBose, more effectively and didn’t cut her main number, “America”, down to a run through the streets. Maria, played by newcomer Rachel Zegler, has a promising career and some pipes. This girl can sing!
Film direction and cinematography have that iconic Stephen Spielberg look. What can I say… It’s gorgeous. Spielberg again teams up with famed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. This duo are known for Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and Ready Player One, just to name a few.
Ok, let’s get into what didn’t work.
Justin Peck, who is a former principal dancer of New York City Ballet, but came into the company after the passing of Robbins, had his fair share of performing WSS ballet as the role of Bernardo. Let that sink in. Again, a white man played a brown man, and then went ahead and made a movie about ultimately his experience with this work. I get it, NYCB and the nation loves this ballet. Why not replicate it. And this is how we end up with someone like Peck making a lot of shots when a ballet company of approximately 100 dancers has less than 10 people of color. As for the film adaptation, I think Peck’s bravado got the best of him. It’s easy to be loved when you fit the master narrative.
My favorite updated scene was the Jets’ song “Gee, Officer Krupke”. It’s fun and well executed in a tight space, and in Peck’s wheelhouse as it’s a narrative relatable to him. Ending it with Krupke returning to his trashed police station and too flustered to address the Jets as they run out the station jubilantly exemplifies the two Americas we live in.
Let’s talk dollars. WSS 2021 has a budget of 100 Million. Modest for a Spielberg film. In the Heights, 55 Million. Crazy Rich Asians, 30 Million. Again, another time Hollywood low-balled the value of BIPOC narratives. But let’s greenlight and double the budget for a couple of white men to remake a film about what more white people think the Puerto Rican-American experience is. This alone stresses how armchair anthropology works.
This past summer, I wrote a glowing review of In the Heights. I still stand by my word. It’s a great film and testament to Latinx and BIPOC-American stories. I also acknowledge the critiques around colorism and lack-there-of in the main cast. Yes, it’s problematic. Colorism is a bi-product of colonialism’s racist efforts that pins BIPOC folx against each other to be in proximity of whiteness; thus dogging darker folx to the bottom of the food chain. Why are we praising Spielberg for casting one Afro-Latina woman? Is that all it takes to be in the good graces of white men?
I don’t understand why this film is set in the 50s. This I find to be its biggest flaw. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’ll gladly listen to other’s perspectives. Robbins and Wise wrote this as a contemporary play. Tackle issues they were and that we are currently facing.
Why didn’t Spielberg do the same? If he was truly going for the ‘woke perspective’, why not make it reflect what are today’s views of immigration and racial tensions. Leaving it in the 50s, at best, makes us put a mirror to ourselves to do some real reflection and recognize our nation’s progress on these issues. At its worst, you might as well throw on a MAGA hat and continue to claim that that decade was the height of this nation.
If I was retelling this story today, I’d set it at a high school in El Paso, Texas. A local school is deciding on the spring musical and WSS is a contender. What we see instead are honest narratives of high school students grappling with families tirelessly working to provide a better life for their families and one of our leads is threatened with being deported because another kid accidentally tipped an ICE agent.
If at all, 2021 highlighted that immigration is a problem. Our story doesn’t have to end in tragedy. Let’s agree to not have kids in cages.