STARTING TOMORROW: The state of the race!


What's wrong with West Side Story / with Lara Logan?: For whatever reason, Steven Spielberg has filmed a remake of West Side Story, the Broadway musical which became a Hollywood smash in 1961.

Concerning the original film, we quote the leading authority:

"Released on October 18, 1961, the film received high praise from critics and viewers, and became the highest-grossing film of 1961. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture, becoming the record holder for the most wins for a musical."

And so on, from there. 

We don't know why Spielberg decided to do a remake.  Nor are we entirely clear on what is now supposed to have been wrong with the original film, though such complaints do exist, and some may be perfectly valid.

Yesterday, the New York Times decided to tackle that second question. What was or is wrong with West Side Story—whether with the original film, or with the overall property? 

The Times decided to tackle that question or questions. Below, you see the headline which appeared, and part of the introduction to the feature which resulted:

The Great ‘West Side Story’ Debate

Since its Broadway premiere in 1957, “West Side Story”—a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” and created by four white men—has been at once beloved and vexing.


Why does “West Side Story” continue to have such a large cultural footprint? Should it? Is it possible to be true to such richly emotional material and still be responsive to our moment?

We asked five experts to weigh in...

Inevitably, the New York Times had decided to round up the putative experts. According to the introduction, "Scott Heller, the interim editor of Arts & Leisure, kicked off the conversation, and it got going quickly from there."

That headline may seem to suggest that a "great debate" ensued. We'll have to admit that we found the "conversation" to be a bit underwhelming, and to be poorly formed.

The younger two of the five experts were most critical of West Side Story—sometimes of the original film, sometimes of the underlying text. 

But what exactly was wrong with the property? The conversation, while highfalutin, tended to ramble about. 

The clearest statement of fault appeared early in the transcript of the conversation. We highlight that statement below:

HERRERA: Unfortunately, my memories are wrapped up in a microaggression that has stayed with me since high school. My family is Dominican, from the city of Santiago de los Caballeros, and I am likely one of the only kids of Dominican descent who attended my high school. I remember when, in English class, a white classmate reprimanded me for not having seen “West Side Story” at the time, saying, “But aren’t you Puerto Rican?!”

DEL VALLE SCHORSKE: Ugh, Isabelia, that’s such a familiar story! In a messed-up way, your classmate’s confusion makes sense, because the musical itself might just as well be about Dominicans—it’s that general. I first saw “West Side Story” on a VHS tape my mom and I rented from the public library when I was maybe 9 or 10. I grew up in California, away from my Puerto Rican family in Washington Heights, so I thought I might find something out about my culture that I didn’t know before. But nothing onscreen—beyond the latticework of fire escapes—reminded me of the people or neighborhood I knew from frequent visits to New York. I finished the movie feeling even more confused than I was before about what being Puerto Rican was supposed to mean—to me, and to the “average” American.

In turn, these experts graduated from Barnard in 2014, from Yale in 2009. When Carina Del Valle Schorske watched the original film, presumably in the late 1990s when she was 9 or 10, she ended up "feeling even more confused than I was before about what being Puerto Rican was supposed to mean."

Did this conversation among five experts produce a "great debate?" In our view, the conversation was utterly lacking in focus.

Based upon the published transcript, the interim editor of Arts & Leisure never asked any of the experts to speak with specificity about what was wrong with the original film, or with the overall property. The conversation ended with the two younger experts offering these remarks:

HERRERA: I don’t know if there is such a thing as a great remake, but I’m certainly hoping this version releases its grip on stereotypes, offers its more underdeveloped characters a bit of autonomy and perhaps provides more texture about the actual life and experiences of Puerto Rican migration at the time. And please, give us at least a few songs with actual Afro-Caribbean rhythms! A plena take on “I Feel Pretty”?


DEL VALLE SCHORSKE: I want it to flop so we can move on.

Isabelia Herrera voices a complaint about alleged stereotypes. She also hopes the Spielberg remake "perhaps provides more texture about the actual life and experiences of Puerto Rican migration" in the 1950s.

More simply, Del Valle Schorske hopes the remake flops. So ended the great debate.

(Meanwhile, what does "plena" mean? You can just click here.) 

In our view, that conversation wasn't much of a great debate. In our view, it isn't even all that clear that it should be classified as a conversation.

It's entirely possible that Herrera or Del Valle Schorske could have produced a fully cogent criticism in a stand-alone essay. But the Times decided to round up three additional experts, resulting in a wandering array of observations and claims.

Was something wrong with the original film? Is the West Side Story property flawed at its very core?

We'd like to see a serious statement of such claims—but we didn't see it here. 

Nor should that be surprising. Decades of work in the vineyard have left us wondering if we humans, as we exist at this time in this floundering nation, have the ability, at our highest levels, to produce anything like a discussion, analysis, debate, conversation or critique of anything at all.

(The difficulties of low-income schooling? The amazing cost of American health care? Have you ever seen those topics discussed? We don't really think we have!)

What are the actual intellectual attributes of our failing race? It seems to us that our highest-level news orgs are very limited in their abilities—but then too, a stranger set of manifestations also darken the land.

We'll start tomorrow with Lara Logan—with her latest observations about Anthony Fauci. Such peculiar manifestations are more and more common at this juncture. As part of the problem we just mentioned, our major news orgs rarely assemble teams of experts to discuss what this might mean.

The questions we'll be asking this week are these:

To what extent does "mental illness" mix with our remarkable lack of basic intellectual skills?

Also, what is the actual cognitive state of the human race? To what extent, as we slide toward the sea, are we modern Americans "the rational animal?" 

Extensive branding to the side, are we humans "the rational animal" in any clear way at all? After all, as we've said for the past several years, it's all anthropology now!

Tomorrow: What Logan said


  1. bob,
    As someone who is not at all a media critic, have you ever wondered why the media doesn't present the 75+% of the country that is happy to get the vaccine, and instead focuses on the dumbfuck minority who think they know better than epidemiologists?

  2. "Have you ever seen those topics discussed? We don't really think we have!"

    Somerby frequently makes this kind of complaint. The last time someone dug up a list of articles in the NY Times about the cost of American health care apparently made no impression on Somerby, because he doesn't bother to read the comments on his own blog.

    Somerby makes the same complaints day after day because he doesn't look for the information he says is missing from the NY Times.

  3. The original West Side Story appeared in the same time period that Mickey Rooney played Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese man, in Breakfast at Tiffanys. The casting of real Hispanic actors and dancers was a breakthrough, both on stage and in the film. Younger panelists may not understand that because they are more used to seeing greater diversity in films in their lifetimes. Their demand that more Puerto Rican culture appear in the remake is appropriate, given that Natalie Wood (who is not Latina but of Russian heritage) played Maria and her character was whitewashed to the point of being indistinguishable from the lives of non-Latin viewers. The universality of romance was achieved by making the specifics of the characters lives closely similar, not through empathy. If Spielberg can achieve the latter, more power to him.

  4. It seems likely that the point of the NY Times article was that people disagree about the original film, that they have differing viewpoints. If so, Somerby has entirely missed that point.

    And there's never any rambling discourse here at Somerby's blog. None of that leaping from claim to claim here.

  5. "Romeo and Juliet" shows Italian people behaving badly. It caricatures them as prone to tribalism and violence. It was written by an Englishman, who had never been in Italy. Are we supposed to throw it out for that reason?

    The idea that roles must be played by the same ethnicity is dangerous nonsense. Let's stop making ethnicity bigger than it is.

    1. Actually, the desire of families to have their children marry others who are like them is a human universal that is found worldwide in all cultures.

      In the time period of Romeo and Juliet, men did wear swords and engages in duels as depicted in the play. The Diary of Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian silversmith of that time period, describes the same thing. Shapespeare based his play on a British translation of an Italian story:

      "Shakespeare's principal source for the plot of Romeo and Juliet was The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, a long narrative poem written in 1562 by the English poet Arthur Brooke, who had based his poem on a French translation of a tale by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello."

      I think the idea that roles are better played by someone of the same ethnicity and more importantly, cultural background, is just common sense. Whitewashing in Hollywood was a matter of privilege and access, not seeking the best actor for a role.

      The practice of "making ethnicity bigger than it is" goes back centuries in America, to the beginning of the founding of our colonies. People left Europe because their "ethnicity" had limited opportunities in a Europe that was already "making ethnicity bigger than it is". The statue of liberty promises welcome to all of those people seeking freedom, but America imposed quotas and limitations on certain ethnicities during its nativist revival periods, such as the early 1900s and more recently, under Trump. So David needs to preach to his own choir about that.

      Doesn't it make sense that a Puerto Rican Accent will be better portrayed by someone who has spoken Spanish from childhood than by someone who had to learn it from a dialog coach? When David argues that ethnicity is no big deal, he means that he doesn't wish to put himself to the trouble of respecting the cultures of other people.

    2. Who wouldn't pay to see Mr T play the lead role in "The Mitch McConnell Story"?


    3. "Doesn't it make sense that a Puerto Rican Accent will be better portrayed by someone who has spoken Spanish from childhood than by someone who had to learn it from a dialog coach?"

      No, dear dembot, it does not. Because West Side Story is a theatrical musical, not documentary. No one wants to hear the actual modern Puerto Rican accent in it (nor capitalized "Accent", whatever that might be).

    4. And there were no women in Shakespeare's company, so female roles were played by boys.

      Besides, Shakespeare wrote early modern English, which can be hard to understand. So it's time for him to go! The best writer working in the English language today is a foreigner, Mao Cheng Ji. His comments on The Daily Howler are the new canon. (I gest.)

    5. Shakespeare didn't write for us. He wrote for his own audiences, who were contemporary with him and thus would understand his plays without difficulty.

  6. "To what extent does "mental illness" mix with our remarkable lack of basic intellectual skills?"

    Not at all. Mental illness in our medical profession and our society is defined using the bell curve. Behaviors that are in the tails are defined as abnormal whereas those that are shared among people are defined as normal. If everyone behaves a particular way, then it is by definition not mental illness.

    It is also defined by degree of pain caused to the self or others and by failure to engage in normal behaviors during one's life, including forming close relationships, being hired and holding a job, finding pleasure in leisure pursuits, staying out of trouble with the law and not hurting others.

    That means that, much as he may wish to, Somerby cannot legitimately consider the entire human race to be mentally ill. This game he plays is largely designed to permit him to call some people names using psychiatric labels, while excusing others for behavior that is clearly out of bounds for decent human beings.

    Somerby himself has no desire to have a serious discussion about mental illness. He has never touched on anything close to that subject, even after supposedly reading Mary Trump's book and Bandy Lee's analysis of Trump.

    1. Anonymouse 11:14 am, you might enjoy this discussion of the mental health issues plaguing one particular profession.

      I know I did.


  7. "To what extent does "mental illness" mix with our remarkable lack of basic intellectual skills?"

    Obviously you, dear Bob, are quite a bit autistic. But no, we wouldn't call it "mental illness"...

    1. It is called neurodiversity.

    2. Your slipping. You weren't first with your ignorance today.


    3. We feel that dear Bob is too hard on himself.

      His lack of basic intellectual skills is not at all "remarkable"; it is indeed typical for a liberal, even for a recovering, slightly unorthodox liberal, which is what dear Bob is. Hopefully it'll get better.

    4. Bob a "liberal".
      You funny.