West Side Story (1961) - Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and the Media: Student Essays (2023)

Von Jolene Vallejo

History of the West Sideis a reimagined modern Romeo and Juliet tale set as a musical on the streets of New York in 1961. In this (then) modern tale of unhappy lovers, two young teenagers from rival gangs fall in love as the two gangs fight over territory. In this story we see the rivalry between two different races, the American and the Puerto Rican. That's what intrigued me about the film, not only because it's a musical with outstanding actors, but also because of the inclusion of another race as a lead in the film. Although this film shows the equal inclusion of Puerto Ricans and Americans, there is inaccurate portrayal and clear stereotype created through the use of visual effects, cinematography and sound, and details in clothing or settings that discriminate against Latinos.

West Side Story (1961) - Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and the Media: Student Essays (1)

First, the film uses stereotypes to portray Puerto Ricans as other foreigners and shows the problems of migration and discrimination at the time. During the film's release, there was a large migration of Puerto Ricans coming to the United States and this film helped showcase that, but in a way that also misrepresented them. The film's themes were extremely relevant to what was going on at the time, and Hollywood played a big role in how West Side Story's characters looked on screen. Because Latinos came from other countries, they were often seen as dangerous and different from Americans. As such, many if not all Latino characters have been portrayed as violent and tough or madly in love. In addition, they were also abused and taunted, such as the Jets' mid-range shot hissing at one of the sharks as if it were a pet or a dog. Puerto Rican writer Carmen del Valle Schorske also acknowledged these problems when she says, "My mother taught me to resist the cartoonish stereotypes of macho teenage gangsters and hysterical lovers in West Side Story."Los New York Times(Shorsk). The migration of Puerto Ricans may have influenced the making of the film, but the portrayal is not very accurate and only brought issues of discrimination, difference and power to the Puerto Rican community.

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The difference is encoded in the film through mise-en-scène to distinguish between the Jets and the Sharks, which are different races, but the characters' roles also make the difference. Paying attention to detail is always very important in film, and West Side Story uses detail to show the difference between rival gangs. Start by delving into the meaning behind each gang's names, as they have underlying connotations. Jets, for example, may be associated with flying objects and "something making advances in strength and mobility" (Martinez and Ue), while sharks may refer to the dangerous underwater creature as dangerous or violent Latin stereotype symbolism. The difference is also explored by looking at the clothing worn by both gangs. This is noticeable throughout the movie, but one scene I want to point out in particular is the dance scene where the two gangs are dancing in the hall. In this wide-angle shot shown above, the editing helps present the jets and sharks together, but with a noticeable difference on either side of the shot. The Jets all wear lighter clothing made up of similar colors and the Sharks wear darker color groups. The staging here helps code the clear distinction between these migrants coming to the United States and Americans trying to protect their homeland.

West Side Story (1961) - Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and the Media: Student Essays (2)

force inHistory of the West Sideit is a problem communicated through race and gender. Race is encoded in the musical and plays a role in determining power. Puerto Ricans are stereotyped through the portrayal of the characters as exotic and dangerous creatures. Of the two gangs that are troublemakers, the Sharks are said to be the most dangerous. Also, throughout the film, most of the musical numbers are performed by white American characters, and the Puerto Ricans in the film don't have as many musical numbers. In addition, masculinity is one of the themes showing the man as the dominant figure, although Maria also features prominently. There are scenes where dialogue is discussed and the female character is minimized. For example, a scene where Bernardo tells Anita that "women know their place at home," and this shows what Bernardo thought a woman's place was. This is also evident in the Jets' interactions with Anybody's character, a tomboy who tries to be one of the boys but is constantly rejected by the gang and told to leave. Megan Bolander Woller says, “Well's comments also underscore the borderline quality of this tomboy; It really doesn't fit anywhere in this world.” (Woller). The power of race and gender together is also used in some scenes like the one above. You see a medium close-up of Maria with a shallow focus to blur the background and emphasize the importance of Maria, but in the same scene none of this was done for the character of Anita, which could be due to Natalie Wood's portrayal as the protagonist, but also remembering that she was the American actress between her and Rita Moreno, who was a Puerto Rican actress. Both women have embraced masculinity as a general power, but both women win races as seen in the cinematography. Race and gender are powerful themes under power, especially in a film like West Side Story.

West Side Story (1961) - Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and the Media: Student Essays (3)

The Latino community has been discriminated against in Hollywood for many yearsHistory of the West SideThe film's clear and apparent vagueness provides underlying stereotypes such as the use of color. First of all, there is controversy surrounding the casting of the leading roles as the actors who played the Latino leads were not authentic. At the time, Hollywood was still using brownface to alter a white actor's appearance to reflect a different ethnicity, such as the lead role of Maria, played by non-Latina Natalie Wood. Not only was this casting inaccurate, but they also used darker shades of makeup to make them darker to portray Puerto Ricans. For example, being a film based on endangered Puerto Ricans, it lacked the authenticity of the Latino protagonists. Also, Rita Moreno, a real-life Puerto Rican actress who played Anita, had to darken her skin tone to match the Latino skin tone type. Finally, the color red is used multiple times throughout the film to represent the danger and violence that Latinos possess. In the scene before the big ball, Maria walks through the clothing store and colors begin to surround Maria, because “Maria is made to walk through a rainbow instead of going straight to red, it also speaks to the film's fear of that color " (David). The colors used in this scene with Maria were rainbow colors and a shade of red, which Davine says is a feared color in this film because of its underlying violent meaning. This dissolve effect changes your image from one scene to another and is very well done. The cinematic choice of zoom and long shot slowly transforms the dancing Maria into a group of dancing individuals.

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West Side Story (1961) - Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and the Media: Student Essays (4)

The discussed issues of difference, power and discrimination have not aged well. These remain current themes in many of the show's Hollywood plays and Broadway revivals. Today, the musical has reinvented itself several times on stage and in upcoming film, with attempts to rid the musical of its clear-cut racial and gender stereotypes. Manisha Aggarwal writes to SchifelliteThe Harvard newspaper, “History of the West Sideleft such a large cultural footprint that it's worth retrieving the story and portraying it as accurately as possible," said technical producer Amanda Gonzalez-Piloto" (Schifellite). In this version of West Side Story, the Harvard students want the play to be as accurate as possible. This production focuses on educating students about the history and culture of each character in order to accurately portray them. This is especially important when the film deals with real, moment-to-moment issues of difference, power and discrimination, but overdramatizes or misrepresents groups.

History of the West Sideis an important piece of film history, not only because it is a musical classic with outstanding achievements, but also because of its cultural representation and its use to show the themes that emerged in the 1960s.History of the West Sidebecause I have always liked musicals and musicals always fascinate me. Like the beginning where the Jets and Sharks start a ballet dance to depict a rivalry between two gangs. I've always been fascinated by these performances, but as I've gotten older I've started to understand the film better, especially in the last few weeks as I delved deeper into the film and noticed all these little extra details within the film. I chose West Side Story because it's trying to be a cultural film that has been loved by many over the years but at the same time has been criticized for portraying a different race. It matters to me because it's nice to see the Latino portrayal on screen, despite its vagueness. Also, I felt it appropriate to choose a film where the themes managed by the film's plot are relevant to the Latino community to this day.

Still, this modern take on Romeo and Juliet is inHistory of the West SideIt's become a classic over the years, but it remains an inaccurate description of the Latino community. While this is a reinterpreted story of Romeo and Juliet, we not only observe two lovers from different worlds, but also a rivalry battle between two gangs. The clear distinction between the two gangs in the film ranges from the clothes they wear to the stereotypes of each group. Difference, power and discrimination are three powerful themes to be explored in a film. These themes appear in the Puerto Rican representation, but also in the female representation, Puerto Rican or not. Visual editing and cinematography help play with the way these issues are encoded on screen, allowing viewers to decipher the underlying meanings of specific details.

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Aggarwal Schifellite, Manisha. "'West Side Story' explores racial, ethnic, and political entanglements". Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, November 12, 2019, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/11/west-side-story-explores-racial-ethnic-political-complications/.

Bolander Waller, Megan. "A PLACE FOR HISTORY ON THE WESTSIDE (1961): GENDER, RACE, AND TRAGEDY IN THE ADAPTATION OF HOLLYWOOD". CiteSeerX, 2010, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

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Davine, Lauren. "'Couldn't we at least dye it red?': Color and race in West Side Story". 2016, web-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.libweb.linnbenton.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=7f083aeb-945f-4740-88e8-1c1a33ff3c51%40sdc-v-sessmgr01&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3Qtb%3d%Gddl3Zd =118224541&db=a9h.

Martinez, Michelle, and Tom Ue. "History of the West Side (1961)". Race in American Film: Voices and Visions That Shaped a Nation, edited by Daniel Bernardi and Michael Green, vol. 3, Greenwood, 2017, pp. 905-908. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX7357300337/GVRL?u=lbcc&sid=GVRL&xid=6b486873. Retrieved February 16

Valle, Carina De. "Let 'West Side Story' and its clichés die." The New York Times, The New York Times, February 24, 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/opinion/west-side-story-broadway. html

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