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West Side Story

(1961, Wise & Robbins)
A film with a title that starts with the letters W, X, Y or Z A film from Rita Moreno

"Why do you kids live like there's a war on? Why do you kill?"

Can we acknowledge the irony of the song "Why Can't We Be Friends?" sung by a band called War? But that War song is probably what good ole' Doc (Ned Glass) should have sung to the Jets and the Sharks on this classic musical, since they can't help but fight and kill.

The film follows these two gangs as they struggle for control of their NYC neighborhood. The Jets are a white gang while the Sharks are a Puerto Rican gang. Meanwhile, Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jet, falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the leader of the Sharks, which further sparks the conflict between both groups.

However, the original idea was to have Irish and Jewish gangs at the center. This serves to show that fight, kill, and "war" has always been at the center of numerous communities, but also to highlight one of my main issues with the film, which is that it's not, and it has never been, a true representation of Puerto Rican culture and diaspora.

I'm Puerto Rican, and my first experience with West Side Story didn't go that well. The first time I saw it was probably 20-ish years ago and I really didn't like it. Not necessarily for the reasons I mention above, but mostly because I found the two central characters AND performances (Beymer and Wood) to be utterly boring and completely uninteresting. However, as I grew up, I became more aware of the racial issues in its script and execution.

To begin with, the studio cast numerous white actors in the roles of Puerto Ricans, most notably Wood (American) and George Chakiris (Greek), who plays Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. To make matters worse, Chakiris and even Rita Moreno, who is an actual Puerto Rican, had to wear brownface to "darken" their skin tone to what the studio perceived to be the "right" Puerto Rican skin tone.

In addition, although the story does intend to put the Jets and Sharks on more or less the same level, the script and direction can't help but lean towards the Jets. The film opens with the Jets, and for most of the film's duration, the focus is solely on them, relegating the Puerto Rican Sharks to secondary characters or even the "bad guys". For a film that's heralded as the representation of Puerto Rican culture, that says a lot.

But my first point of contention remained the same; Beymer and Wood just can't hold this. Not only are their performances bland, but their characters are completely boring. The fact that they are completely upstaged by Chakiris and Moreno, whose characters are infinitely more interesting, just adds to the list of film's flaws.

To be fair, this time around I did appreciate the direction and cinematography more. There is a stagey feel to it, but I think it fits the musical template well. Most of the songs and choreographies are catchy and well executed. Unfortunately, that isn't enough to get over the racial and misrepresentation issues, but more importantly, the vacuum of the two lead characters and performances.