Rachel Zegler, a 17-year-old Colombian-American from Clifton, New Jersey, just went from playing Maria at her local performing arts center's production of West Side Story to landing the same role in Steven Spielberg's remake of the 1957 musical.
Maria, a Puerto Rican girl in New York who falls in love with a white boy from a rival gang in the Romeo and Juliet remix, was famously played by Natalie Wood in the Academy Award-winning 1961 film. In fact, most of the original film's Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors, setting the stage for a slew of whitewashing controversies in stage productions across the globe in the decades that followed. And in a 2017 interview on the "In the Thick" podcast, Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the film, revealed that the skin of the white actors, and Moreno herself, was darkened with makeup.
Spielberg and his screenplay writer, the famed Tony-winning writer Tony Kushner, have made it their mission to correct this past in their remake. They also hired Moreno as an executive producer on the new version and cast her to play a new character—Valentina, the owner the shop where Tony (who'll be played by Ansel Elgort) works, a role originally written for a male character and played by a white, male actor.
After vowing to cast Latinx actors in the movie’s Puerto Rican roles, Spielberg and his team found Zegler through a casting call that specified they wanted Latinx actors. She beat out over 30,000 applicants to join the ranks of other stars, like Afro-Latinx Broadway vet Ariana DeBose (Hamilton) who will be playing Anita.
These casting choices come at a time when whitewashing has become a major topic of conversation within Hollywood circles and as the industry has been taken to task by actors and audiences of color frustrated with the lack of opportunities for actors of color, even when characters onscreen are written as people of color. Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone were both highly criticized for playing roles where the character is either part of an Asian anime franchise (Johansson in Ghost in a Shell) or of Asian descent (Stone in Aloha). Johnny Depp turned heads playing a Native American in The Long Ranger (2013), and Zoe Saldana offended many Nina Simone fans by darkening her skin to portray the blues queen in Nina (2016). Ben Affleck played Antonio Mendez in Argo, which won an Oscar for best picture in 2013, and was criticized for not hiring a Latinx actor in that role. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign highlighted in 2018 that only three Latinx actors had won Academy Awards in the past 20 years; the campaign's creator, April Reign, has spoken out on the lack of representation in Hollywood for years.
Ziegler singing "Shallow" from 'A Star Is Born':
Zegler seemed keenly aware of how her role is a step toward addressing this Hollywood whitewashing when she gushed to Deadline, "West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American woman growing up in this day and age, strong roles like Maria are so important. To be able to bring that role to life, a role that means so much to the Hispanic community, is so humbling."
Spielberg and Kushner have also been meeting with thinkers in the Puerto Rican community to help make the new screenplay more authentic. The two went to the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan in December 2018 to get input from professors and students. While that may seem like a common-sense step, it counts an act of leadership in today’s Hollywood, where a Golden Globe-winning “true story” about a real black musician can still be written without consulting the family of that person.
Judging by the reactions from Puerto Rican gang leaders from the Upper West Side (where the film is set) about their opinions of the original film, Spielberg could use all the consultation he can get. Chino Familia, godfather of La West Side Familia gang that started in 1972, told VICE, "West Side Story didn’t show what was really going on. They used a lot of white people.” He said the sting of feeling misrepresented in films like West Side Story spilled over into controversies about the new street gang films shooting without his group's input in the 70s. “We tried to stop The Warriors [a 1979 movie about New York gang turf wars] from filming over in Riverside Park because we said, ‘Why are they coming here and wearing these jackets but they’re not for real gangs.’ They didn’t know us.”
As Spielberg charges ahead with his cast of bright Latinx talents and a new script with more input from the communities it depicts, he’s taking necessary steps to tackle a long history of whitewashing in film using one of Hollywood’s most quintessential examples of it. It's hard to imagine a better project to set a new tone for the next chapter in Hollywood.
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