“West Side Story” is as relevant today as it was in 1961
By McKenna Seegmiller
Recently I watched West Side Story again for the first time in a while. Behind the dramatic romance and energetic dance numbers, I noticed that the movie presented certain truths about society. Watching the classic, I realized just how little has changed since its release in 1961.
The most notable takeaways from the Hollywood classic West Side Story are the ideas of fleeting young love amidst hate, much like all interpretations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Like the divide between the Capulets and Montagues, West Side Story is centered around the conflict between the Jets, a gang made up of teenage American boys, and the Sharks, a teenage gang of Puerto Ricans who immigrated to America.
The Romeo and Juliet of the story, Tony and María, meet at a school dance and fall in love. The Jets are led by Tony’s best friend Riff and the Sharks are led by María’s brother Bernardo. After the dance, as María and Tony meet again, the Sharks and Jets set terms for a fight.
The next day, the fight results in Bernardo killing Riff and, out of shock and a wave of emotions, Tony kills Bernardo. Chino, another member of the Sharks, threatens to kill Tony to avenge Bernardo and because he also harbors feelings for María. Tony, believing that Chino shot María, runs around the block screaming for Chino to shoot him. María finds Tony and as they reunite, Chino shoots his gun and kills Tony.
While the focus of the story is the star-crossed love between Tony and María, it also presents very real depictions of the issues of our modern day society. Unfortunately, those depictions that are still relevant and hold true today.
Racism in America is not a foreign concept. Recently more attention has been brought to the corrupt justice system as minorities face discrimination through police bias and brutality. Throughout West Side Story, we see Lieutenant Schrank exhibit police bias and continuously favor the all-white Jets over the Puerto Rican Sharks.
After the Jets and Sharks discuss the terms for their fight, Lieutenant Schrank comes in and instigates trouble with the Sharks by forcing them to leave, saying “I know, it’s a free country and I got no right. But I’ve got a badge. What do you got?” In this instance he uses his power and badge as a threat in order to assert dominance over the Puerto Ricans and force compliance.
After the Sharks leave, Lieutenant Schrank attempts to bargain with the Jets. If they tell him the location of the fight, he’ll help them get rid of the Sharks. Schrank continuously shows more leniency and basic respect to the Jets than the Sharks.
This reflects the behaviour of law enforcement officers today. People of color are more likely to be targeted by police because of their race or ethnicity than white people. There is an abuse of power by law enforcement, and there is enough corruption in the system to allow it to continue. The racist and discriminatory behavior exhibited by Lieutenant Schrank reflects only a fraction of the behavior that we see in unjust law enforcement today.
Immigration and the American Dream
America is often perceived as a haven, with free enterprise and the opportunity to make a name for yourself. Overall, Americans believe they are given the chance to live safely and prosperously in this country. That American dream is not true for everyone.
The musical number “America” best exhibits the falsehood of equal opportunities within American life. In the song, the Puerto Rican boys and girls argue back and forth. The girls sing of all the new opportunities they now have while the boys sing of the harsh realities of being a person of color in America.
At one point in the song, the girls sing “Life is all right in America,” to which the boys sing in response, “If you’re all white in America.” More often than not, the American dream only becomes a reality when you are born into certain privileges based on social class, gender, race, sexuality, etc.
Immigrants come to America with dreams of wealth and the ability to do whatever their hearts desire, but they soon face discrimination and obstacles meant to stop them from being seen as equal to American-born citizens. This is still relevant today; there have been countless reports of immigrants being put into cages and living in poor conditions. Even if one were to enter the country legally, it can take years and a great deal of money to be granted permission.
Recently, ICE has also detained legal US residents, not just illegal immigrants. People who come to America hoping for a better life face a system designed for them to lose, and no matter how progressive we consider our society to be now, the relevance of “America” today shows us how little has changed.
While only the Sharks face racism and the struggles of being immigrants, both the Sharks and Jets deal with being labeled as troubled kids. Oftentimes, the home environment is the root of what might make a kid “troubled”. It is so easy to punish people for their actions without taking the time to consider what might have led them to that point.
The song “Gee Officer Krupke” best displays this. In the song, the Jets sing about how those marked as troubled kids get passed around the system from court-ordered therapy to a social worker to jail. No one wants to deal with the troubled youth, and they are then made into someone else’s problem.
Another aspect on the topic of troubled youth is also how hard it is to escape cycles of violence. At the beginning of the movie, Tony has a solid job and voices his opposition to the continued actions of the Jets, despite the fact that he used to be a Jet also. Tony wanted no part in the fight between the Sharks and Jets, and he only went to try and stop it from happening. In the scene where Bernardo stabs Riff, Riff passes his knife to Tony before falling to the ground. Tony grabs the knife and, clouded by shock and a flurry of emotions, he stabs Bernardo.
After killing Bernardo, Tony wears the same shocked expression that Bernardo wore after killing Riff. They are both still children who never meant for the feud to get this far. By passing the knife off to Tony as he died, Riff encouraged Tony to fall back into violence and destruction in order to avenge him. Tony tried to do better for himself and escape his old life with the Jets, but he was still pulled back in and paid the ultimate price.
This endless cycle of violence is not lost on today’s society. Time and time again we can see how violence instills growing hatred, which leads to more violence.
A Necessary Remake
Though West Side Story presented significant and powerful messages about society’s flaws and shortcomings, it is not immune to making mistakes. Both the roles of Bernardo and María were played by white actors. George Chakiris, who plays Bernardo, was of Greek descent and Natalie Wood, who plays María, was of Russian descent. Both were artificially bronzed for the roles.
Brownface has been common in Hollywood for a long time, and Hispanic and Latino actors have had less opportunities because of it. The new West Side Story remake releasing in 2021 rights the wrongs of the original film, and the Sharks are composed of actual Latino actors and actresses.
Hollywood has made efforts to reach a greater level of diversity and diverse storytelling, which includes accurate portrayals of minority groups and their stories enriched with culture and their experiences.
The important messages about racism, immigrants, and troubled youth that West Side Story presents to its audience are still relevant today and, along with more accurate Latino representation on screen, there is much to look forward to in December of 2021, when Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake will be released.
Featured Image: The Jets and Sharks attend a school dance. (Photo credit: Mirisch Pictures)