Spielberg tried to save ‘West Side Story.’ But its history makes it unsalvageable

Frances Negrón-Muntaner
December 17, 2021

When Rita Moreno was filming the 1961 movie “West Side Story,” her skin color — as well as that of the numerous white actors playing Puerto Rican characters — was darkened with makeup. Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, questioned the makeup artist on set about the practice.

“We are many colors,” she recalled in a 2019 interview with the Associated Press. That makeup artist then accused her of being racist. “I was so stunned that I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. That’s really also how little people know about Puerto Ricans.”

Thankfully, no actor is in brownface in the new version of the movie musical, now playing in theaters. Twenty members of its cast are Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent; eight of these actors were found at casting calls in San Juan. A notable portion of its dialogue is in Spanish, delivered without subtitles appearing on-screen. And a newly added moment sees the Sharks singing the original version of “La Borinqueña,” which became the official anthem of the U.S. territory after it was rewritten with less confrontational lyrics.

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