I saw the poster same as everyone else. Steven Spielberg is set to direct a remake of West Side Story with Tony Kushner providing the screenplay. Holy hell was I unprepared for the social media arguments I saw play out in my newsfeed. Apparently, there are some who believe something’s coming and it’s not all good.
Before I discuss why this remake is a good thing, let’s get one thing clear. The “original” West Side Story movie is itself a remake. Surely you read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school, right? So now that’s cleared up, let’s look at this proposed remake of a remake and discuss why it’s about time.
The casting notice states and from what I’ve heard/read, they are looking for Latino/a actors to play Latino/a roles. Natalie Wood was a brilliant actress but she couldn’t sing(thankfully the late Marni Nixon dubbed her voice) and they actually darkened Ms. Wood's face with makeup, thus providing one of the most famous examples of "brownface" in Hollywood history. They didn't stop there either, they even darkened Rita Moreno's skin. I’m not saying that in order to play a role convincingly you must first go through the exact experience called for in the show, i.e. playing a mother role without first being a parent. But in a situation where the characters are written as Puerto Rican immigrants, the actors should be Latino.
An argument brought forth is that regardless of casting, the 1961 version still resonates today so there’s no need to remake it. So then the movie O from 2001 should not have been made since it was adapted in a similar fashion to West Side Story. That movie resonated with a generation (I’m of that generation) of people in a way that the Kenneth Branagh version made just six years prior couldn’t. The same can happen for this new West Side Story . To think that a movie from the 60s that so blatantly stereotyped an entire culture by making them all look and sound the same can’t be improved is absurd.
The recent 2009 Broadway revival updated the original in fresh and dynamic ways. Not the least of which was having some songs sung by the immigrant characters performed in Spanish(translations prepared by Lin-Manuel Miranda himself). I don’t speak Spanish but I still understood the sentiment and it added a new layer to this show I wasn’t expecting. By adding Spanish language and Latino elements to this new movie version, it will bring an authenticity that arguably wasn’t there before.
To think that something, anything, no matter how good cannot be improved upon is naïve. What some consider Da Vinci’s greatest work, the Mona Lisa, he never considered it a finished work. He kept it with him his entire life so he could return to it time and time again to edit it as new ideas, new styles, new materials came to him, all in an effort to make his piece better. If constant remaking was good enough for Da Vinci, surely it’s good enough for West Side Story.