In 1961, one of the most iconic musicals of all time, West Side Story, was released. The film, inspired by the Broadway musical and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is a musical tragedy about two gangs in Manhattan fighting for dominance over the turf. Things take a turn for the worse when one of the white American Jets, Tony, falls in love with the sister of a Puerto Rican Shark, Maria.
The film received 11 Academy Award nominations and won 10 of them, including Best Picture and Best Director. And now this highly decorated, culturally significant film will be remade with Steven Spielberg, an influential filmmaker in Hollywood, directing it.
And that’s not even the best part.
Rita Moreno, who played Anita in 1961, will be back but as Valentina, a character who owns the corner store that Tony works at. Starring alongside this Academy Award-winning actress is young heartthrob Ansel Elgort, who has been cast as Tony in this upcoming remake of West Side Story.
Despite my excitement for the remake, I will point out a major change that should be made to enhance the quality of the film. In the original film of this musical, the Puerto Ricans were whitewashed. Natalie Wood, a white actress born to Russian immigrants, was cast to play Maria, who is supposed to be Puerto Rican. In 1950, a decade before the release of West Side Story, the United States Census categorized Puerto Rican immigrants and other Latin Americans as “white.” What the 1950 census failed to realize was that many Latin Americans have heavy indigenous and African ancestry, making a vast number of them not white. Since the harmful stereotypes circulating about Puerto Ricans happened during the 50s, it was not a surprise when Natalie Wood was cast to play Maria.
This needed to change.
As of 2017, there are over 5 million Puerto Ricans currently living in the United States. Therefore, casting Puerto Ricans to play actual Puerto Ricans should not be an issue. West Side Story was filmed in New York, where Puerto Ricans make up 32% of the state’s Latino population.
Auditions for Maria were held in Puerto Rico, so it does look promising that a Puerto Rican actress will be cast as Maria. Hopefully, with the abundance of Puerto Ricans who greatly shape and influence American culture, one of them will be able to portray the notable Maria in perhaps the most influential musical of all time.