Why Steven Spielberg Didn't Use Subtitles For The Spanish-Language Scenes In West Side Story

"Why remake a classic?" 

Every time word comes in of a new remake of a movie that everyone loved the first time around, inevitably the question turns to who this is ostensibly for. Only a brash and arrogant director, the narrative goes, would have enough of an ego to assume that they could possibly improve on perfection. Of course, the response to Steven Spielberg, of all directors, choosing "West Side Story" as his next film was markedly different from what it might have been otherwise in lesser hands. Though the optics of a white filmmaker — even one who comes with as much prestige as Spielberg does — taking on such a culturally significant story couldn't help but raise some eyebrows, it turns out that he had several good reasons to modernize this particular classic. In the words of Chris Evangelista's review for /Film, the resulting movie is one of Spielberg's best. Among them was the director's choice not to include subtitles for much of the Spanish dialogue, which reflected his commitment to diversity among the cast this time around after the whitewashing complaints prevalent in the original.

I Needed to Respect the Language

The original 1961 "West Side Story" boasts an impressive legacy — it is considered to be a nigh untouchable masterpiece among both the musical genre and the medium of film in general. However, there's one glaring aspect to viewers these days that even the most ardent fans can't ignore — the fact that many of its Puerto Rican characters are, in fact, portrayed by white actors. In addition to righting this past wrong by casting a much more authentic ensemble (though some would disagree with that assertion), part of the responsibility Spielberg embraced was staying true to the cultural language of the story. This necessitated the very intentional lack of subtitles during certain moments of Spanish dialogue in his "West Side Story" remake. 

As Spielberg told IGN:

"That was a mandate that I put down to Cindy Tolan who cast the movie, that I wasn't going to entertain any auditions that 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 was very important and that goes hand-in-hand with my reasoning for not subtitling the Spanish. 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."

It's important to prioritize voices and perspectives from the specific communities who would know best about issues like these, some of whom have pushed back against the casting of this "West Side Story" film and the accents of the actors. At least some progress has been made with this remake, but I look forward to hearing even more in-depth thoughts from those directly affected by the cultures and traditions depicted in the movie. "West Side Story" comes to theaters on December 10, 2021.