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The Mass Media

2-26-24 PDF
February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

White Washing in ‘West Side Story’


Steven Spielberg (pictured) is the director set to direct the next film adaptation of “West Side Story.”

In 2017, actress Lea Michele of “Glee” fame gave an interview to Cosmopolitan about her experience auditioning for Maria in a Broadway adaptation of the famous musical “West Side Story.” Maria, the female lead, is a Puerto Rican character, and, in the actress’s own words, Michele’s “dream role.” Michele’s auditioning process came to a halt when she was asked to leave after just one line, an experience that was utterly devastating to her. She cried over the rejection, as she had gone so far as to learn Spanish for the role. 

Michele was not the first white woman to aspire to the role. Maria was made famous in a 1961 cinematic adaptation of the musical starring Natalie Wood. While the film featured Latinx actors in supporting roles, even some of them were deemed too light skinned and were made up in brown face, the act of using makeup to darken one’s skin. While Wood herself was not made up in brown face, she was still a white woman who received critical acclaim for playing a woman of color. Wood’s turn as Maria became iconic, and her performance of “I Feel Pretty” is still famous to this day. Her light skin and dark curls are still associated with Maria, and it is no wonder that Michele herself felt entitled to the role as a white woman, thinking learning Spanish was enough to deserve it.  

Hollywood itself has a long history of white washing and brown face, but that trend, at least with West Side Story, may hopefully change. A new silver-screen adaptation of the musical is set to be directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony-award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, and it promises to be successful. Given the history of casting in both Hollywood and this particular musical, questions and anxieties about the potential cast have naturally been raised. In a more racially aware and tolerant society where protest and boycott are easier organized through social media, it is likely that brown face and white washing would not be easily accepted by audiences. 

Instead, Spielberg and Kushner have taken steps to get ahead of any casting controversies. Cindy Tolan, the film’s casting director, has taken a more transparent process to finding actors, opting to host a sort of open casting call on her Twitter account. A graphic posted by Tolan made clear the casting requirements for the leads of the movie: for Tony, they are looking for a Caucasian man. For Maria, Anita, and Bernardo—all Puerto Rican characters—they are searching for Latinx actors. For all roles, actors should be between the ages of 15 and 25 with experience singing and dancing.  

At the very least, these casting measures of the lead roles will ensure Latinx actors are in Latinx roles, but it is not quite specific. There are multitudes of cultural diversity within the Latinx community, and a Mexican or Brazilian actress is not a Puerto Rican actress. When the 1997 movie about Selena Quintanilla was cast, there was controversy within in the Latinx community over the casting of Jennifer Lopez—a Puerto Rican woman in the role of a Mexican woman. Both Quintanilla and Lopez are Latina, but their experiences and upbringing were entirely different, and many felt that a Puerto Rican from New York could not accurately represent the experience of a Tejana from Texas.  

Given that the casting call does not specifically ask for Puerto Rican actors, it is very possible that the history of the Lopez controversy could repeat itself. Casting Latinxs is certainly a step in the right direction, but asking for broad Latinx applicants in specific Puerto Rican roles is still a misunderstanding of the heterogeneous community of Latinxs in the United States. Cultures are not interchangeable.