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‘West Side Story’ Is A Quality Reminder of Racial Tolerance And Spielberg’s Skill – Review

By Angel Amaral

Steven Spielberg has done it again. The master of filmmaking conquers another genre of storytelling effortlessly. The versatility of his range as a director is one of a kind. This is the same man who delivered Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same year. The same man who, for decades, has crafted unforgettable stories in genres such as science fiction, historical dramas, horror, adventure, etc. Hints of other genres are usually sprinkled within his most famous works. For example, the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom displays a memorable musical number called “Anything Goes.” Ever since I saw that intro, I always wanted to see a full blown musical production from Spielberg.

Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story.
(Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

That time has come and of course, he did not disappoint. Although I would have preferred an original piece from him, I appreciate his personal reasons to re-tell this classic story of forbidden love and division across cultural lines. Overall, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a quality reminder of racial tolerance in society and Spielberg’s skill as the greatest director of all time. 

West Side Story is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The story focuses on the conflict between two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, that come from different ethnic backgrounds. The main romance involves characters from opposing sides, a Puerto Rican girl named Maria (Rachel Zegler) and a Caucasian boy named Tony (Ansel Elgort). As their love grows, so does the hatred that runs the streets. As a result, tragedy strikes the neighborhood one dark night. Spielberg uses this story to emphasize his strong beliefs of empathy as a human being. He’s known for generating this kind of life changing movie experience; one in which the viewer is entertained by the immersive storytelling, while gaining profound beliefs such as altruism. Previous examples include his past films like The Color Purple and Schindler’s List. Spielberg will always be known as the blockbuster artist, but the way he weaves in universal themes (such as cultural identity) within these big pictures for the greater good is what makes him the best. I welcome this update because it can reach new groups of like minded people that are prejudiced against those who are different from them. 

(Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

60 years after the original West Side Story film adaptation and the problem the story highlights is just as relevant today. This movie showcases how poverty, gang violence, mental health, and clash of cultures are all inextricably linked with impacting structural racism in America. The ugly truth is that social discrimination is embedded within areas and organizations of our society. There are still people who look at others as inferior based on the color of their skin or background. These ignorant people can be health care workers, neighbors, lawyers, presidents, and law officials. As an effect, the rights and opportunities of an individual or group being targeted can be limited, or worse, violated.

Hatred is the catalyst for tension in the story. The fictional battle over territory and pride feels all too familiar, especially when the characters make statements such as “go back to where you came from.” Spielberg communicates the sociological disease immediately with the opening scene. He sets the stage with the camera floating over a slum in which both groups inhabit. When brawls break out after the Jets dishonor Puerto Rican culture, the police emerge to inflict their own spiteful behavior. They call the Puerto Ricans racial slurs while also questioning their rights as Americans. Because the Jets are poor with traumatic upbringings, the police even claim them as “the last of the can’t make it caucasian” in America. When issues like poverty, healthcare, and violence are ignored, hate and anger will continue to thrive in a never-ending cycle.

(Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

In addition to racial relations, Spielberg also broadens the message to include acceptance of gender identity. There is a trans character in the movie that is labeled as a “biological disaster.” He wants to join the gang, but they don’t accept him because they loathe what they don’t understand. The Jets only want people that they consider to be “normal” around. Everyone else is considered to be “sociologically sick.” Eventually, their choices and actions lead to a disastrous and poignant ending. A lesson is learned the hard way, which causes their attitudes to change, along with their behavior. They look at life and the people that are different from them in a new light, carrying each other with kindness regardless if they’re a Jet, Puerto Rican, or identify as something else. Moving forward, the community would ideally heal as the people refuse to hurt anyone for their beliefs. I love that Spielberg encourages this level of acceptance, it’s why he’s one of my heroes.

Legendary Academy Award winner, Rita Moreno, steals the movie with her presence and voice. It’s awe-inspiring that she returned to fill a role that feels just as emotionally significant as when she played Anita in the original. Rachel Zegler is a rising star with a remarkable voice. The rest of the cast are extremely talented and bring new life to the characters. The songs by the late Stephen Sondheim remain masterpieces and move us to be kind to each other with love. During these times, experiencing these songs again in a movie theater makes West Side Story worth a watch.

Love is just as important as life; it’s all the same. If we work together to live in harmony, then someday we can unanimously say that we like to live in America without a trace of prejudice. There’s a place for us all where we can feel pretty, and witty, and bright.

Rating: 8/10

West Side Story arrives in theatres on December 10.

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