Opinion: Why “West Side Story” failed to perform


Credit: Genevieve Morrison

WPSN’s Hallie Luo discusses the casting issues around the new movie “West Side Story,” and how this caused a disappointment at the box office.

Hallie Luo

“West Side Story,” released on Dec. 10, 2021, is a well-made and gorgeous movie that has a lot of problems underneath. The casting was the main problem; what were the directors thinking?

The streets of Manhattan hustle. Someone jumps a fence. A second later, a coin flips. One by one, white teenage boys join together to form the Jets— a gang whose purpose is to make trouble. Their bodies can’t help but dance, so they glide through the streets they want to make their own, singing and stealing from stores. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “West Side Story” tells the story of these streets, bounded by racial inequalities and life in slums.

Inspired by the play Romeo and Juliet, main characters Maria and Tony, played by Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort, live in opposite worlds. One as a Puerto Rican immigrant, and the other as a white ex-con. Their ties to the Jets and Sharks, the two rival gangs that dominate the Upper West Side, make it seemingly impossible for them to be together. With Maria’s brother Bernardo as the leader of the Sharks, and Tony’s best friend Riff as the leader of the Jets, it’s clear that their romance will stir up drama.

The movie itself is visually stunning. Each frame is full of colors, and the 1950s feel is definitely there. The camerawork is insanely smooth, especially as we follow the dancers around the city. Zegler shines as Maria. As someone who has been following her YouTube career for years, it’s exciting to see her breakout role receive recognition. Ariana Debose, Mike Faist and David Alvarez were all extraordinary, each having previous backgrounds in Broadway shows.

On paper, this movie should be selling out theaters nationwide. A fun, family-friendly musical with catchy songs and flashy dancing. Surely everyone would want to watch, right? However, after its release on Dec. 10, the movie inadequately performed by only reaching $10.5 million in the box office over the first weekend. In my opinion, there’s two reasons why.

Ansel Elgort is one of them. The name might sound familiar after his roles in “Baby Driver” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” Back in Oct. 2018, he was casted as the lead role of Tony in “West Side Story.” After the filming of the movie in June 2020, a fan spoke up about her relationship with Elgort, and how he sexually assaulted her. Right away, he shut this down and turned defensive. Soon after this, multiple other reports surfaced from young girls who had similar experiences of sexual misconduct with the actor.

Since the film release date was delayed due to COVID-19, it would be released after these allegations. The internet blames Elgort for the failure of the movie, since many fans refused to see it in theaters and put more money in his pockets. As for me, I unfortunately found out about Elgort’s past after watching the movie and completely understand why said movie fans would be reluctant to watch it.

This isn’t the only reason movie-watchers are avoiding the movie, though. In the original “West Side Story” film released in 1961, the majority of the cast was white. For a movie that highlights the issues with racism against Puerto Ricans, wouldn’t it be important to cast people who can actually represent them? Instead, heavy spray tans and excessive brownface were the filmmaker’s solution to avoid casting people of color.

You would expect that in the new, redone, adaptation of “West Side Story” directors would prioritize the casting of Puerto Ricans to show that representation that was absent in the original cast. However, many of the main cast members are not Puerto Rican at all. Although the people casted for the Sharks were Latinx, which differs from the original, that doesn’t make it okay.

This can only be blamed on the makers of the movie. Only 20 actors in the entire movie were of Puerto Rican descent, and most of them were extras. This belief that the Latinx community is “interchangeable” is completely wrong since each nationality has its own distinct culture. Just because someone speaks Spanish doesn’t immediately mean they are Puerto Rican.

Many Puerto Ricans have decided to boycott the movie because of this, as it doesn’t have the representation that they were promised. Although it is important to value high talent and acting ability when casting for a movie, in this case, the goal should’ve been to value the representation of Puerto Rican talent more.

This boycotting and downfall of the movie could’ve been prevented if they had re-filmed and found a new actor for Tony, and if they prioritized the role of Puerto Ricans as well. I understand it’s timely and expensive, but with a budget as big as Spielberg’s and thousands of Puerto Ricans to represent, the importance of “West Side Story” to be done well is expected. We’ve already waited two years for the movie to come out, so we can wait a little longer if it means it’s done correctly.