Reviewing West Side Story

Steven Spielberg’s rendition of Robert Wise’s 1961 film West Side Story still strikes many chords in America today as it did in 1960s.

Other countries have immigration issues that remain divisive. From a flood of Turks in Germany, Algerians in France, to Mexicans and Haitians in the United States, these immigrants seem to rankle the ultra-conservative right.

Besides the fact that the main protagonist of West Side Story, Tony aka Anton, reminds me of my nephew Steven, young, innocent, and idealistic with a shock of wavy hair, his romance with Maria crosses many lines.

The story is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that pitted two warring families, the Montagues and Capulets, against each other; By the end of Shakespeare’s play, the forbidden love between Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet results in violence and ultimate death of its protagonists.

In West Side Story, forbidden love is the catalyst for violence between two competing cultures pitting Polish Americans with Puerto Ricans, transplanted American migrants from the island of Puerto Rico.

Spielberg emphasizes this further by using more Spanish – without subtitles – than the older version in the film, further dividing these two cultures of language and race. This is especially telling as police Lieutenant Schrank, an authority figure, keeps reminding the Puerto Ricans to speak English.

Let’s face it. Most people fear difference. We look for similarities in each other instead. It makes us feel safe to know our friends and our neighbors speak the same, cook the same, and celebrate the same.

For example, in Eye of the Beholder, the state attempts to save a woman from her disfiguration by surgical means. This Twilight Zone episode confronts our attempts to assimilate ourselves to each other. By the end of the episode, we finally realize she is surrounded by ugliness – the normal – with her own botched image of beauty.

Spielberg’s film is set in the 1950s. These were times that still separated us into distinct ethnic neighborhoods. We also were afraid to confront differences and clashes existed when lines were crossed. Although the most popular show to come out of the 1950s, I Love Lucy, portrayed Lucy married to Cuban band leader Desi Arnaz, the show did find humor in Desi’s Spanish accent.

Parallels exist within my own family as surely as it does yours.

As a young G.I. stationed in Tokyo, Japan during the Korean War, my father fell in love with a Geisha and wanted to take her home to introduce her to his parents and eventually to marry and have children. Social taboos and laws prevented him from doing so, and so he had to be content with another woman who became my mother. They divorced years later. My father really idolized Elizabeth Taylor.

I also remember stories of when my uncle’s Roman Catholic family was vehemently opposed to him marrying my Protestant aunt outside his faith. This caused a rift between the families that has outlasted their marriage. My uncle, faithful to his wife to the end, died in 1990. The families still don’t talk to each other.

By the end of West Side Story, the two star-crossed lovers are doomed because of the hatred engendered by this racial divide. Tony, thinking Maria dead, is fatally shot and slumps in Maria’s arms gasping his last.

“Now, I have hate!” says Maria as she points the gun at Tony’s executioner. Juxtaposed with “Te adoro, Anton”, love ultimately triumphs over hate by the end of the film. Are we any different?

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