West Side Story is a musical by Stephen Sondheim where Tony, a former member of the Polish gang The Jets, and Maria, the sister to the leader of the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks, are in love even though the “two households” they are from are in a constant feud. The famous film adaptation made in 1961 has been known as a classic for decades. The recent West Side Story reboot is coming out December 2020, and although we all know it will never compare to the original winner of ten out of twelve Oscar nominations, we can still be hopeful about an updated version.
I primarily heard about the remake during an interview with Rita Moreno, who played Anita, Maria’s best friend and Bernardo’s lover, in the original film, and is now one of the best grandmothers on TV in One Day at a Time. Not only is she going to be in this reboot, she also stated all of the actors playing anyone from The Sharks or affiliated with them will be Latino. It makes sense how she discloses that because although she is the first and only Latina to win an Oscar, she was one of the few Latinx people playing a Latinx person and the only main “Shark” related character; the rest were white.
I’m even impressed that the woman playing Maria (Rachel Zegler) in this version won’t be white, like in the former version and multiple theatrical productions, or even white-passing.
As promising as all of this is, I honestly would be even more impressed if specific changes were made to a particular song: “Gee, Officer Krupke.” For those unfamiliar with what was made to be a humorous diddy, The Jets sing about the vicious cycle of being a “juvenile delinquent” as a “social disease” and how a sob story can get them far from trouble until a social worker puts them in prison.
Not only does it depict gross stereotypes about youth incarceration by providing a blanket statement around “if they’re going to think this about us, give the people something to believe in,” it doesn’t address the racial systemic roots of youth incarceration despite being a musical attempting to address the consequences of hatred and discrimination. Granted, in a film in the 1960s that predominantly whitewashed their characters, what else could you expect?
Therefore, I don’t think it’s unfair of me to expect more from this remake with their announcements around their desire for a more progressive approach. One approach to the “Gee, Officer Krupke” dilemma could be around removing the song altogether. Although I wouldn’t mind that as an option, one could argue about how there are moments of the song that are legitimately funny without bringing incarcerated youth down, and there’s even the lyric “We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood./Deep down inside us, there is good.” In that light, why not revise the song?
Why not use it as an opportunity to address misconceptions instead of perpetuating them, while still using humour as a tool to satirise? Why not include some verses from The Sharks’ perspective, even? They have as much of a right to call out society’s misunderstandings of them as The Jets do; people of colour are incarcerated at disproportionate rates compared to their white counterparts, and it’s not because of the myth around Black and Brown people being more inherently “broken” or “dangerous.” Moreover, the perspectives shared in the song “America” aren’t the only perspectives that the Latinx community has, I’m sure; or specifically that the Puerto Rican community has.
I am excited to see this film when it’s released, but you can’t talk about discrimination without addressing the systems responsible, and casting people in roles they should have been cast in in the first place is the bare minimum Hollywood can do at this point.