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9 Things About "West Side Story" That Are Terrific, And 8 Things That Are Not So Great

This is an iconic film, but it's about as authentically Puerto Rican as french fries.

West Side Story is kind of a big deal.

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It won a ton of Oscars (10, which is the record number of wins for a musical) and was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress because of its cultural significance.

Here's the thing: I, a person from Puerto Rico, had never seen West Side Story, which is considered by a lot of people to be a musical with significant Puerto Rican representation.

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This surprised a lot of my friends when I moved to the mainland US, but it's just not a very big deal at home.

So I finally watched it, and came to the conclusion that West Side Story is amazing, but it falls short when it comes to accurate Latinx representation. So here are some of the things the film totally nailed, and a few things it could've done better.

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1. Good: As a movie musical, West Side Story more than achieves its goal and is obviously a classic.

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The memorable music, superhuman dancing, and intense emotion make it a great musical. The direction, editing, and production design make it a great movie. Altogether, it's a near-perfect combination of both formats.

2. Bad: Tony and Maria don't make very strong leads.

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Maybe it's not fair to compare, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes were a more compelling couple in Romeo + Juliet, another well-known adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Maria's whole personality is pretty, innocent, and in love. Tony is supposed to have this fearsome gang reputation, but he can't get his friends to do a single thing he says? Plus, I'm sorry to say that their chemistry is lukewarm at best.

3. Good: Their duets are pretty great.

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They might not be the most exciting couple ever committed to film, but "Somewhere," "Tonight," and "One Hand, One Heart" are beautiful songs. Props to Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant, who provided the singing voices of Maria and Tony (and Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, who sold the onscreen performance).

4. Bad: Most of the Sharks were played by non-Latinx actors.

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Maria and Bernardo are Puerto Rican, but Natalie Wood and George Chakiris, the actors who played them, are not Latinx. Both actors put on broad accents to seem more authentic, which just made the whole thing worse.

5. Good: Rita Moreno is spectacular as Anita.

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Rita Moreno won an Oscar for this role, and rightly so. She earned it just by artfully kicking her purple dress around. And she's actually Latina!

6. Bad: The Sharks are all in brownface.

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All of the actors playing Sharks wore the same shade of brown makeup on their skin to make themselves look tan. In 2017, Rita said that she tried to explain to the makeup artist that Puerto Ricans are racially diverse and have a variety of skin tones, but that didn't go over so well.

7. Good: The musical tries to incorporate more modern themes into the source material.

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It's a good sign that the movie tries to incorporate themes like immigration, discrimination, gender roles, gentrification, gang violence, and police brutality. It takes place in New York, after all.

8. Bad: Any kind of commentary on these themes is...lacking.

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This is the part where I say that a film from the '60s doesn't entirely hold up when you look at it through a 2020 lens. Sorry, but it is what it is! The Jets' xenophobia goes unchecked pretty much the entire movie, and the implication is that without Tony's death, they wouldn't have had a reason to change. Plus, there's the whole brownface thing.

9. Good: "America" is a terrific song about what it's like to move to a new place, and captures how a lot of Puerto Ricans feel after leaving the island.

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Bernardo sings about missing Puerto Rico and being disappointed with how things have gone for them on the US mainland, while Anita reminds him that they have a lot more opportunities there than they did in PR. And I can tell you that they're both right!

10. Bad: The Jets have way too many songs.

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I don't want to argue with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, but did the Jets really need three songs?? The Sharks only have one! This movie is two and a half hours long, and I feel like they could have combined "Jet Song," "Gee, Officer Krupke," and "Cool" into one number. Or two. But three is too many.

11. Good: The dancing in West Side Story is a one-of-a-kind achievement.

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The dancers in this movie are full-blown athletes, and watching them leap around the screen is nothing short of thrilling.

12. Bad: There is very little about this movie that is even remotely Puerto Rican.

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The list of things in this movie that are actually Puerto Rican begins and ends with Rita Moreno. Even "America," the only song by the Puerto Rican characters, could be about anybody who moved to the US if you edited a couple of the lines. Sondheim himself said that he'd "never even met a Puerto Rican," so it's not surprising that the film doesn't convey anything about the culture that it's supposed to be representing.

13. Good: It hits all the emotional beats of Romeo and Juliet and could be considered the best adaptation of Shakespeare's work.

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Personally, I'd say it's a toss-up between West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet, but both adaptations make you hope that those two kids will make it, even though you already know they won't.

14. Bad: The scene in which the Jets sexually assault Anita is entirely unnecessary.

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There are a million reasons why Anita wouldn't be able to deliver a message to Tony, so this scene really added nothing to the plot. There's no reason to put her character in such a traumatic position.

15. Good: The supporting characters make you feel just as invested in the story as the leads (maybe even more).

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Anita, Bernardo, and Riff (Tony's best friend and leader of the Jets) are such great characters that you might end up caring more about the feud between the Sharks and the Jets than Tony and Maria's romance. The rumble scene? Gut-wrenching.

16. Bad: Even though it's considered to have Latinx representation, West Side Story is full of stereotypes.

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All of the men are macho criminals, the women are either innocent and pure (Maria) or feisty and sexy (Anita), and everybody throws in words like "querida" and "mi amor" when they talk, even though they're speaking English. Everyone is the exact same shade of tan. The Jets make jokes about "drowning in tamales," which, just in case anyone out there is confused, are a Mexican dish.

17. Good: The ending is incredibly moving.

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Look, I've made it clear that I found Tony and Maria pretty bland, but sue me, that ending had me choked up. Maria's speech about how hate has ruined her life is very poignant and as relevant today as it was in 1961.

Join BuzzFeed as we celebrate Latinx Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, and explore more content celebrating la cultura.

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