MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
It has been 60 years since the 1961 film version of West Side Story, a well-known and much-beloved movie in spite of its color blind casting of white actors portraying Puerto Ricans (with a few exceptions, including Rita Moreno as Anita) and the dubbing of singing voices for Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood who played Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers from rival street gangs.
It would be a formidable challenge to create something exciting from this material. But director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have succeeded in so many ways that I have time to only mention a few of their many innovations:
There are backstories for primary characters that bring more history into the mix. Tony (Elgort) is on probation after serving a year in prison for almost killing a man in a gang fight. Bernardo (David Alvarez) is a boxer with a local reputation. Both are capable of extreme violence under pressure.
Spanish and English are used in the film without subtitles, and the cast is racially and ethnically diverse, including not only actors from the Broadway stage but also first-time actor Rachel Zegler, who auditioned for Maria while still in high school. Everyone in the cast is exceptional, with Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, The Prom, Schmigadoon!) turning in another great performance as Anita.
Puerto Rican characters have aspirational goals of creating a place for themselves in America, taking on jobs in service industries as a way in. The Americans are mostly concerned with protecting their home turf, even as wrecking balls and gentrification are conspiring to move them out of the neighborhood.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky’s crane shots and camera moves join up with Justin Peck’s choreography to create truly impressive dance scenes.
The character of Anybodys (Iris Menas), depicted as a “tomboy” in the 1961 version is now more compassionately represented as trans.
Rita Moreno’s role of Valentina was created specifically for her. She is the owner of the drugstore in which Tony lives and works. As the widow of “Doc”, she remembers a love that was not divided by religion or race; this becomes the new setting for her wistful rendition of “Somewhere”.
The story still takes place in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City in the mid-1950s, so this version is a reimagining rather than an updating. It is a humbling thing to realize that the divisions in America that exist around race, class, gun violence and country of origin are still very much alive and well.
There are no simple answers to these complex problems, but the intentional movement of grace in our lives may offer us the most hope that we could wish for, since God’s vision of the kingdom far exceeds our best intentions. While my love for the 1961 film is without qualification, I am very much impressed with this thoughtful iteration and I hope that you will take the time to seek it out for yourself.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: An intelligent and thoughtful reimagining of a musical masterwork.
Three pitchforks: Racism; violence; pervasive swearing; implied offscreen sex; one scene of attempted rape.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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