I never have seen the original West Side Story movie that was originally released back in 1961. Yes, I know how absurd that sounds for a movie aficionado like myself, especially in that the film is now deemed a classic and has 10 Oscars under its belt. You would think a guy like me who sees as many movies as I do and even took a film class in college would have opted to watch it at some point in my life thus far, but I never have. I’m not sure why, yet when I learned that Steven Spielberg was remaking it, I decided it would be worth seeing solely because I’ve rarely been disappointed with any of his directorial work in Hollywood.
Beyond Spielberg, the only name attached to this film that I even knew was Ansel Elgort, an actor from Baby Driver and The Fault in Our Stars, two movies I really enjoyed mostly because of Elgort’s incredible acting in them. In this modern retelling of West Side Story, I learned he would be playing one of the main leads, a guy by the name of Tony. While another big star was also attached to it, Rita Moreno, someone who had also been in the original, I honestly didn’t know her name or any of her prior work, so I went into this movie rather blindly about who else was in it or what it was even about. I knew of course that it was a musical, but given I’m not much of a musical fan, (which so many of my gay friends think is a travesty!) I went in with low expectations, unsure if I was even going to enjoy any part of it. But ironically, I did, and then some. I attribute that mostly to the genius of Spielberg, someone who seems to place magic in just about everything he puts his hands on in Hollywood.
For those like me who never saw the original film, the plot of West Side Story is simply about two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, fighting over territory in New York City in the 1950’s just as urban sprawl begins to truly take shape. The Jets are comprised of a bunch of young guys who want to keep their area filled with nothing but fellow whites, while the Sharks on the other hand, are made up of a bunch of guys from Puerto Rico just trying to defend themselves and make a new and better life in the big city. It’s clear the Jets don’t want them or any of their “kind” there right from the start, just as much as the same is true of the Sharks with them. But enter Tony, a former very active Jet who recently was just released from prison and is now trying to stay on the straight and narrow. When his eyes fall upon Maria (Rachel Zegler) one night at a local dance meant to try to integrate the two rival groups together, lines get crossed, tensions rise, and battle cries ensue. Will Tony and Maria be allowed to make it as an item? Will peace ever come between the two rival gangs? How far will Tony and Maria go for their instant love for each other?
While the plot overall of this 2021 version of West Side Story seemed like a rather subtle retelling of the story of Romeo and Juliet to me, Spielberg of course put his modern-day spin on it that felt very fresh. I did learn that he did make some big changes from its original counterpart, but so as not to ruin any of it, I simply want to say the story overall felt quite relevant even to this present day and one that I believe needed to be retold again in the way it was.
Our world has changed dramatically in the last five years. I have seen far too much of the racist overtones depicted in West Side Story emerge and take a front and center stage in our country during this period. While this racism has probably always been there, I feel there are far too many now who proudly and boldly display how much they desire a return to a predominantly, white-ruled America, something I’d totally abhor.
I have spent much of my adult life spending time with numerous people from many other cultures, immersing myself in practices and belief systems far different from the ones I was raised with. Sadly, I grew up in white America, in a middle to upper class Caucasian family. It wasn’t even until my junior to senior year of high school that I had a single person of color in my life. Finally in college that all changed when I grew to love and care about two women of color, Carlean and Renee, and saw how racist our world was even then, on both sides. African Americans hating the fact that a white man was dating one of theirs and whites constantly calling me a traitor and labelling me often with a racist word that instead of beginning with the letter “N” was replaced with a “W”. Over the many years that have passed since those collegiate days, I of course came out of the closet, and learned a lot more about other forms of racism that I eventually became a target of.
All in all, I’ve learned much over the years hanging out in one culture after another. Unfortunately, at their core I discovered there is still a gross disunity that exists in society no different than what was originally depicted between the fictious Jets and Sharks in both versions of West Side Story. The Sharks these days are all the non-white cultures just trying to make a life in this world where too often they have to defend themselves from far too many threats. Threats that come from the Jets of today, those from white society who are afraid of losing a dominance in their world that came only because of our country’s racist roots.
I am neither a Jet nor a Shark. I am someone though who only wishes to help foster a peace between both in this world, something that I continue to express through both my writing and speaking, and something I ask God every day for the strength to continue doing, while so many around me vie for me to take a side.
West Side Story’s 2021 release truly is a phenomenal film, one that inspired me enough to write about, and one that’s left me thinking long beyond the credits ended.
Peace, love, light, and joy
Andrew Arthur Dawson