Casting Latinx talent in ‘West Side Story’ was a mandate

West Side Story

Steven Spielberg insisted on casting actors from the Latin American community for relevant roles in his new film adaptation of the musical West Side Story.

The original 1961 film was criticised for having members of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks portrayed by white actors.

Spielberg said he was striving for more authentic representations,

“First thing I said was every single Shark, boy and girl, needs to come from the Latinx communities.”

Latinx is a gender neutral, alternative description to Latino or Latina, and relates to people of Latin American origin or descent.

In September, to mark Hispanic Heritage Month in the US, a report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initative underlined the absence of Hispanic and Latino representation in the film industry, both on and off-screen.

Only 7% of top-grossing films from 2019 featured a lead/co-lead Hispanic/Latino actor, it suggested, while 4.2% of directors across the 1,300 films in the study, from 2007-2019, were Hispanic/Latino.

Spielberg explained,

“We just wanted for this movie to get it right in the way that we wanted every single person who plays a Puerto Rican to be from the Latinx community, and that was that was a mandate from the get-go,”

West Side Story is a love story set amid two warring teenage gangs – the Jets and the Sharks – on New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it is viewed by many people as the greatest American musical of all time.

Their rivalry is complicated when Tony, a member of the white gang the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of a rival from the Sharks.

West Side Story Poster

Spielberg also decided to have the Sharks speaking in their native Spanish tongue, and the movie features no English subtitles. A decision praised by some, for making it more authentic, but criticised by others who claim that 80% of the audience won’t understand many scenes. There was also concern from some members of the Deaf community, whom already struggle to have equal access to entertainment in the film industry. American Sign Language (ASL) is a language with a completely different grammatical structure from English or Spanish; however, there are Deaf individuals that are able to read and write in both English and Spanish. Removing subtitles from the film completely alienates them from understanding anything at all.

Further controversy surrounds the film as it has been banned in six countries due to the transgender character Anybodys, who is portrayed by Iris Menas. Disney refused to make cuts to the movie that the countries requested, and the countries, in turn, refused to grant viewing rights.

LGBTQ+ people are still largely persecuted in areas throughout the Middle East, with same-sex sexual intercourse being punishable by death in some places, including Saudi Arabia. 

The film’s screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who died last week.

West Side Story is released in cinemas today, 10th December.

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