In bringing West Side Story back to the big screen, Steven Spielberg has already made some big changes to the beloved 1961 movie version. The earlier film — co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, who also directed the original Broadway stage show — famously featured non-Latinx performers in the roles of Puerto Rican characters. For example, Natalie Wood and George Chakiris played siblings Maria and Bernardo, with Chakiris winning an Oscar for his performance. Rita Moreno, who also took home an Academy Award for playing Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, was the only Puerto Rico-born actor to have a major role in the film.
Spielberg's West Side Story, on the other hand, is populated by a far more diverse ensemble. In addition to the new Maria and Bernardo — played by Colombian-American singer Rachel Zegler and Cuban-Canadian actor and dancer David Alvarez — the supporting cast of Puerto Rican characters are played entirely by Latinx actors.
And to lend the movie an extra touch of authenticity, Spielberg, and screenwriter Tony Kushner, made the choice not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue that's regularly heard throughout the film. Instead, multiple scenes in West Side Story take place entirely in Spanish — or with a pronounced mixture of English and Spanish — and there's no onscreen text to fill in the gaps for non-Spanish speaking viewers.
Spielberg and Kushner's bold approach is already generating some divisive reactions on Twitter following West Side Story's world premiere screening in New York City on Monday night. In a since-deleted Tweet, journalist Yolanda Machado praised the filmmakers for their choice, reportedly writing: "West Side Story is fantastic. White people gonna be big mad tho and good. Bless you Steven Spielberg for not subtitling when our people use our language. In a country where nearly 20 percent of the population speaks Spanish, the subtitles just further keep us othered."
Machado's opinion was echoed by others on Twitter, with some pointing out that recent stage versions of West Side Story have made similar changes. For the 2009 Broadway revival, Lin-Manuel Miranda translated two of the musical's songs — written by the late Stephen Sondheim — into Spanish, although the original English versions were later restored during the production's run.
steven spielberg a king for not including subtitles in the spanish dialogue for his west side story, very bold and non-compromising. make these losers try and decipher what the boricuas are saying along with the rest of the latinx pic.twitter.com/33bsDSfhvH
— 𝐚𝐧𝐝𝐫𝐞𝐬 (@barbzforbernie) November 30, 2021
the most notable thing for me in this version of the #WestSideStory film: the Puerto Rican characters speak in Spanish quite often, without subtitles, without re-saying what they've said in English.
Viewing audiences as culturally nuanced makes your stories more authentic.
— Kiara Alfonseca (@kiaraalfonseca) November 30, 2021
Also not to be that person, but - the 2009 revival of West Side Story translated the Sharks’ songs into Spanish. Like, this is not a new thing.
— Marie Bardi (@mariebardi) November 30, 2021
Much to love about the new West Side Story, but Steven Spielberg’s deliberate choice not to subtitle any Spanish dialogue was his most brilliant decision. Cops and Jets gang members screaming, “speak English!” The real-world parallels to the American experience of today run deep.
— Jason (@jasonosia) November 30, 2021
Also I like there are not subtitles when they spoke Spanish. The back and fourth between English and Spanish was so familiar ( in my house Portuguese) but you get the idea. That’s how it should be pic.twitter.com/o1FXVfVgNi
— Kathia Woods (@kathia_woods) November 30, 2021
Steven Spielberg’s #WestSideStory is great. A respectful nod to the original musical and film with smart, thoughtful updates. Beautiful to look at. Was pleasantly surprised to see so much Spanish(!) spoken on screen. And not just in throwaway lines. pic.twitter.com/sdtG0fejFx
— Kirsten (@KirstenAcuna) November 30, 2021
But others — including some Spanish speakers — expressed mixed feelings about the film's lack of subtitles. Many of those same voices expressed skepticism that West Side Story is too firmly entrenched in a particular worldview to ever be radically reimagined.
So not subtitling the Spanish in West Side Story is weird to me bc even this version doesn't feel like something made for Latine first. When content made specifically for us doesn't translate in subtitling it makes sense. But tbh, WSS is still by and for white folks first.
— Kate Sánchez⁷ (@OhMyMithrandir) November 30, 2021
I'm 3rd gen Mexican, so my Spanish is limited at best. Also, huge fan of West Side Story, so thanks for letting me know not to bother watching it, I would have just wasted my money. I think we should make sure everyone knows not to bother watching if you arent a Spanish speaker.
— Gr81disp (@gr81disp) November 30, 2021
I’m sure I’ll still enjoy it but if they were trying to make any sort of sociological statement then I’m not sure “you’re only going to understand the same white English part of the story that you’ve understood your whole life” is the way to do it
— Kyle MacNaughton (@KyleMack13) November 30, 2021
Fun time @producersguild #WestSideStory screening last night! 💃🏻 Not subtitling Spanish dialogue was an odd choice imo, otherwise it’s beautifully directed. Cast is 💯💯💯 @ArianaDeBose is incredible, as are Mike Faist, David Alvarez, and Rita Moreno!! #Oscars
— Andy S💙🇺🇸 (@Andrewstrauser) November 30, 2021
People trying to pick cultural fights over whether or not the new West Side Story movie has subtitles is the most hilarious thing.
Like the last movie was brownface city and this movie still has ethnically inaccurate casting, so subs or not - there's sand in the foundation.
— Elvis Dutan (@the_snickman) November 30, 2021
West Side Story premieres Dec. 10 in theaters.