Before cancel culture comes for my beloved ‘West Side Story,’ I thought I’d get ahead of it by explaining why the classic film is not about race.

Playbill for West Side Story.
Playbill for West Side Story. Photo by Lawren. Source Flickr

I’m not stupid, okay? Obviously there are elements of race in West Side Story. There were even some insensitive choices, like casting Natalie Wood as the Puerto Rican femme fatale, and maybe some forced, over-the-top accent work. And the racism that was prevalent in the depicted era is accurately embodied in the character Lt. Schrank. If anything, it’s not racist, it’s about racism. But furthermore, I’d like to make the point that West Side Story isn’t about race as much as it is about class.

I’ve made this point before, that the opening shots of a film tells you what the movie is about. West Side Story starts by panning over a luxurious city skyline, a college campus, nice apartments, then mid-level apartments. The buildings keep getting smaller and more condensed, as the camera passes over everything that’s denied to the subjects of our film, those living in the projects. That’s both the Sharks and Jets.

“This turf is small, but it’s all we got”

The Jets in the Broadway production of West Side Story
The Jets in the Broadway production of West Side Story. Photo by Heyszilard0. Source Wikimedia

Riff and the Jets don’t have a beef with the sharks because they’re Puerto Rican. They talk about how they’ve already fought off the Emeralds and the Hawkes. Because that little piece of street is the only thing they feel like they have a claim to. See, they may be white, but they still belong to a historically disenfranchised group, the poor.

As you can hear in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets are familiar with the revolving doors of the system; jails, courts, social services. We hear several references to their family members turning tricks, even selling drugs. Their broken homes leave them with little to turn to, making them very territorial about what they consider their turf. Their perspective is clear when they riff off each other, mimicking the phrases they frequently hear. 

“Go play in the park / Keep off the grass / Get out of the house / Keep off the block / Get out of here / Keep off the world!”

-The Jets

The American Dream

The core theme of West Side Story is the American dream. The Sharks and their girls and families came from Puerto Rico in search of it. But, the Sharks find themselves in the same situation as the Jets, even Lt. Schrank – who is desperately seeking a promotion – they’re poor. And the truth that West Side Story finds is that the American dream is unattainable; the poor stay poor.

George Chakiris as Bernardo in West Side Story.
George Chakiris as Bernardo in West Side Story.

“A theory is posited, an argument explored and a conclusion reached. That, in a nutshell, is what theme is.”

-John Yorke Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story

Is the American dream possible? To me, the tragic ending for our protagonists indicates that it’s not. At least not when we’re fighting amongst ourselves. Because Maria and Tony know that part of the American dream is freedom and harmony.

Tony and Maria are our main characters, and therefore our tools for exploring the theme. And to know our protagonists, we must ask three questions. What is their desire? What is their weakness? And what is their need? The answers: To be together. Their connection to the Sharks and Jets. A new life. They need to break ties with their old lives to get what they want.

Their beliefs denounce race difference as a source of conflict. When Tony and Maria meet, Bernardo pulls her away and says, “Can’t you see he’s one of them?” To which Maria responds, “No, I see only him.” 

I bring this up just to strengthen the initial point, that it’s not about race. Because if theme is explored through our characters, then this would suggest the theme is to not see color. The character that most represents the opposition to this is actually Bernardo. Bernardo, who is the pinnacle of Maria’s weakness, cannot look past race. He blames all his shortcomings, on the unfair treatment of Puerto Rican immigrants, and he’s for sure onto something. Still, West Side Story asks us to see things through Maria’s eyes, so we must separate ourselves from that mentality, same as her.

Buying on credit is so nice / One look at us and they charge twice… I’ll get a terrace apartment / Better get rid of your accent… Life is alright in America / If you’re all-white in America.

-Anita / Bernardo America

Tony and Maria’s beliefs (that they can be together) are challenged by Bernardo and Riff who stand between them because they won’t settle their beef with each other. When the two both die in the rumble, Tony and Maria are actually closer to getting what they want, to be together. But they don’t have a new life yet, and in fact they’ll never get it. The American dream is a lie.

I admit that’s a bit extreme and absolutist, but this is an article about West Side Story, of course it’s going to have a bummer ending. Have you seen that movie? Well, if you haven’t just know it’s based on Romeo and Juliet. So, yeah, Tony dies.

I think back to Yorke’s quote. What is the thematic conclusion reached in Tony’s death? Thier beliefs were folly. They failed to be together and start a new life. It’s not that they were wrong to think they, a mixed-race couple, could be together. They were wrong to think they could get out the “west side.” Which is why I say West Side Story is more a tale about socio-economic class than race.

As I was finishing this article, I had to look up West Side Story on IMDb to figure out how to spell George Chakiris. That’s when I found out there’s a Steven Spielberg adaption of the musical coming out in December 2020.

What!? I still don’t even know how to feel about this. I usually get excited about Spielberg’s films, but I’m not always a big fan of remakes, especially a film so classic. Like don’t remake Hitchcock; don’t remake Michael Curtiz. But on the other hand, it would be nice to have a West Side Story with no racially insensitive language.

West Side Story (1961) is filmed in the style similar to that of a stage performance. I’m sure Spielberg’s film will dramatically improve the production quality, and expand the world of the west side. Tell us your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter.