Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story' earns early praise for omitting English subtitles: 'That's how it should be'

In bringing West Side Story back to the big screen, Steven Spielberg has already made some big changes to the beloved 1961 movie version. The earlier film — co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, who also directed the original Broadway stage show — famously featured non-Latinx performers in the roles of Puerto Rican characters. For example, Natalie Wood and George Chakiris played siblings Maria and Bernardo, with Chakiris winning an Oscar for his performance. Rita Moreno, who also took home an Academy Award for playing Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, was the only Puerto Rico-born actor to have a major role in the film.

Spielberg's West Side Story, on the other hand, is populated by a far more diverse ensemble. In addition to the new Maria and Bernardo — played by Colombian-American singer Rachel Zegler and Cuban-Canadian actor and dancer David Alvarez — the supporting cast of Puerto Rican characters are played entirely by Latinx actors.

And to lend the movie an extra touch of authenticity, Spielberg, and screenwriter Tony Kushner, made the choice not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue that's regularly heard throughout the film. Instead, multiple scenes in West Side Story take place entirely in Spanish — or with a pronounced mixture of English and Spanish — and there's no onscreen text to fill in the gaps for non-Spanish speaking viewers.

The Jets and the Sharks face off in a scene from West Side Story (Photo: Niko Tavernise / © 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection)
The Jets and the Sharks face off in a scene from West Side Story. (Photo: Niko Tavernise / © 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Spielberg and Kushner's bold approach is already generating some divisive reactions on Twitter following West Side Story's world premiere screening in New York City on Monday night. In a since-deleted Tweet, journalist Yolanda Machado praised the filmmakers for their choice, reportedly writing: "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."

Machado's opinion was echoed by others on Twitter, with some pointing out that recent stage versions of West Side Story have made similar changes. For the 2009 Broadway revival, Lin-Manuel Miranda translated two of the musical's songs — written by the late Stephen Sondheim — into Spanish, although the original English versions were later restored during the production's run.

But others — including some Spanish speakers — expressed mixed feelings about the film's lack of subtitles. Many of those same voices expressed skepticism that West Side Story is too firmly entrenched in a particular worldview to ever be radically reimagined.

West Side Story premieres Dec. 10 in theaters.