Director Steven Spielberg really didn’t think this one through.
Based on the musical by the late Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story” is making its debut on December 10, 2021.
The cast features “The Fault in Our Stars” actor Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, and Maddie Ziegler. Even Rina Moreno is returning for another run in the spotlight. Moreno, about to turn 90, was the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award in 1962 for her portrayal as Anita in the Broadway musical.
However, there is a big controversy that is surrounding the film. Although Spielberg set a mandate that all Puerto Rican characters had to be played by Hispanic actors, he also decided to drop subtitles from his film.
Spielberg Earns Early Praise For Dropping Subtitles
the most notable thing for me in this version of the #WestSideStory film: the Puerto Rican characters speak in Spanish quite often, without subtitles, without re-saying what they’ve said in English.
Viewing audiences as culturally nuanced makes your stories more authentic.
— Kiara Alfonseca (@kiaraalfonseca) November 30, 2021
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made the controversial decision not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue throughout the film.
Although multiple scenes in the film take place entirely in Spanish, or with a mixture of Spanish and English, there is no on-screen text to help fill in the gaps for audiences who do not speak Spanish.
Journalist Yolanda Machado praised the decision, tweeting, “West Side Story is fantastic. White people gonna be big mad tho and good. Bless you Steven Spielberg for not subtitling when our people use our language. In a country where nearly 20 percent of the population speaks Spanish, the subtitles just further keep us othered.”
Although the tweet was later deleted, she is not the only one to applaud the lack of subtitles in the film.
“steven spielberg a king for not including subtitles in the spanish dialogue for his west side story, very bold and non-compromising,” one fan wrote. “make these losers try and decipher what the boricuas are saying along with the rest of the latinx.”
However, by doing so, they are completely alienating another community.
So…What Are Deaf And Hard-Of-Hearing Audiences Members Supposed To Do?
I’m 3rd gen Mexican, so my Spanish is limited at best. Also, huge fan of West Side Story, so thanks for letting me know not to bother watching it, I would have just wasted my money. I think we should make sure everyone knows not to bother watching if you arent a Spanish speaker.
— Gr81disp (@gr81disp) November 30, 2021
The Deaf community already struggles to have equal access to entertainment in the film industry. American Sign Language (ASL) is a language with a completely different grammatical structure from English or Spanish; however, there are Deaf individuals that are able to read and write in both English and Spanish. Removing subtitles from the film completely alienates them from understanding anything at all.
Deaf actress Lauren Ridloff, who plays the deaf superhero Makkari in Marvel’s “Eternals” has been using her newfound fame in order to advocate for open captions in movie theaters to make movies accessible to everyone.
“It’s been an ongoing conversation since I’ve joined and they are aware of how important it is to subtitle, how important subtitling is to me, and to the Deaf community,” Ridloff explained.
She is not the only one. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who won the Oscar for lead actress in 1987’s “Children of a Lesser God” recently appeared in a new film called “CODA” which is an acronym for Child Of a Deaf Adult.
“CODA” features an ensemble cast of Deaf actors, and the ASL on the screen is subtitled – not translated – in order to give audiences a deeper understanding of the language. The film, which premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, was later snapped up by Apple Studios for a staggering $25 million dollars.
Although Spielberg may have decided to exclude captions entirely, there is no reason not to include Spanish subtitles to help members of the Spanish audience who are experiencing hearing loss from enjoying the movie just as much as their hearing counterparts.