Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story reinvents the iconic 1950s musical for a modern audience. Although Spielberg’s version is still set in New York City of the 1950s, it does differ from the previous film in several key ways. The 1961 West Side Story movie, for example, employed white actors in several of the key Puerto Rican roles. Natalie Wood played Maria, while George Chakiris, a child of Greek immigrants, played her brother Bernardo.

In the new film, the Puerto Rican characters are played entirely by Latinx actors. And many of the scenes featuring the Sharks are played in Spanish, with their dialogue not subtitled for English-speaking audiences. If you don’t speak Spanish, you can still follow the plot; there is enough English here and there, and even when the dialogue’s all Spanish, the acting and direction are crystal clear anyway.

Still, it is an unusual choice. Spielberg explained the reasoning behind it to IGN, saying that from the beginning he gave his casting director a “mandate” that all the actors playing the Puerto Rican characters needed to have “aren't parents or grandparents or themselves from Latinx countries ... especially Puerto Rico, we looked a lot in Puerto Rico, we have 20 performers in our film from Puerto Rico or they’re Nuyorican.”

That decision then went “hand-in-hand” with not subtitling the Spanish, which explained thusly:

If I subtitled the Spanish I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish. This was not going to happen in this film, I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it.

Leaving the Spanish dialogue without subtitles has a fascinating psychological impact on the audiences, one that varies based on the native language of viewers. It also underscores the language barriers between the characters in the film. (There’s no subtitles in real life, after all.)  Where that gets really interesting is when Spielberg begins to focus on Tony in the movie, who is trying to learn Spanish himself in order to romance Maria. Leaving the subtitles out subtly puts the non-Spanish-speaking audience directly into Tony’s shoes during those moments. It adds another psychological layer to a really rich film that’s been very carefully and cleverly constructed.

West Side Story opens in theaters on December 10. You can read my review of the film here.

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