Steven Spielberg’s film’s Los Angeles premiere featured the cast, crew, and producers.
Jesse Grant via Getty Images

Fast two years after the outbreak, Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of “West Side Story” is one of those films that reminds me why I missed movie theaters, and why I’ve been cautiously making my way back. The big screen experience is best for big musicals that are big and dynamic. As soon as I heard the opening notes of Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score (soon followed by the lyrics of the recently deceased Stephen SondheimI felt sold when I heard ‘() echoing through the theatre.

It’s hard not to admire the movie’s standout performances, especially from Ariana DeBose as Anita and the legendary Rita MorenoHe plays Anita, the film’s 1961 adaptation. This is an extraordinary new role which connects both old and new versions. Coming out just in time for the holidays, “West Side Story” will likely be many people’s solution to the seasonal dilemma of picking a movie that will appease most members of your family or friend group.

Spielberg was determined to have his film made. to be a correctiveThe 1961 movie, which was flawed and controversial and was directed by Robert Wise (the latter having also directed the Broadway original production). Tony Kushner’s new script has more cultural context and places the story within a larger social context. The most notable change in the updated version is the inclusion of issues such as gentrification and displacement in the story. This shows the importance these topics had when it first aired in 1957, which they still have today. Additionally, the Spanish-speaking characters are now able to speak Spanish. there are no subtitles. As Spielberg explained: “If I subtitled the Spanish, I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish.”

But celebrating the movie as a corrective to Wise and Robbins’ version just doesn’t cut it in 2021. The 1961 film sets the standard for a VeryLow bar. Casting Latinx actors to play Latinx characters (instead of, uh, white actors in brownface); making the characters more than just stereotypes ― these aren’t exactly groundbreaking achievements. They’re the bare minimum, a drop in the bucket after decades of Latinx erasure in Hollywood.

This isn’t about one remake of one movie, though. It’s about some fundamental questions as Hollywood grapples with how to build a more inclusive and equitable industry, and how to create real, enduring change for people of color in front of and behind the camera. Who gets to tell someone’s story? Which person is the one who holds power? How do you use power if you have it?

Spielberg is considered one of Hollywood’s most influential people. Simply reimagining “West Side Story” is a misallocation of his considerable clout. Why not retell an old story if you really want to rectify the problem of Latinx representation on film? Don’t limit your efforts to correct the shortcomings of one film. That power could have been used to make a film by Latinx directors or writers, or fund emerging Latinx artists.

While not exactly the same, Spielberg’s new “West Side Story” reminded me of another Hollywood approach to improving representation that is similarly limiting. On TV, we’ve seen a lot of remakes, reboots, revivals and reimaginings where the creators take an old property that originally centered white characters and rewrite it with characters of color.

As with the new “West Side Story,” the problem with those kinds of reimagined properties generally doesn’t lie with the shows themselves. One key difference between these shows is the fact that many are now created by people of color. This year, I quite liked ABC’s new “The Wonder Years,” which centers a Black family in 1960s Alabama, and the Disney+ series “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.,” whose teen-genius protagonist is a Native Hawaiian girl. It’s significant that these shows occupy a classic genre — the family sitcom — and that they’re produced by major networks and streaming services. The shows help people see themselves as part of mainstream entertainment. They can also reach large audiences.

However, it would be great if they existed original stories.

It’s past time for more Hollywood gatekeepers and decision-makers to interrogate their power and use it more intentionally. In all of these cases, it would have been better for them to put their weight behind entirely new stories by creators of color, rather than repurposing stories originally told — and in some cases still told — by white creators. It’s a halfway solution, a bandage instead of a real treatment.


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