Steven Spielberg Didn’t Subtitle Spanish Dialogue in ‘West Side Story’ to Avoid ‘Giving English the Power’

20th Century Studios/Amblin
20th Century Studios/Amblin

Director Steven Spielberg said he refused to use subtitles for the Spanish-speaking scenes in his epic West Side Story remake for the purposes of “inclusivity” and to “respect the language” and to not give “English the power over the Spanish.”

Speaking with IGN’s Simon Cardy, Spielberg said that no subtitles will be presented over the Spanish dialogue “out of respect for the inclusivity of our intentions to hire a totally Latinx cast to play the Sharks’ boys and girls.”

According to Spielberg, who went through great pains to ensure the film’s authenticity, the language stemmed from a mandate he gave to the casting director to hire performers with close connections to “Latinx” countries.

Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, and the cast of West Side Story. (20th Century Studios/Amblin)

“I wasn’t going to entertain any auditions that aren’t parents or grandparents or themselves from Latinx countries,” Spielberg said. “Especially Puerto Rico, we looked a lot in Puerto Rico, we have 20 performers in our film from Puerto Rico or they’re Nuyorican.”

Spielberg believed that English subtitles would be giving the language “power over the Spanish.”

“That was very important and that goes hand-in-hand with my reasoning for not subtitling the Spanish,” he said. “If I subtitled the Spanish I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish. This was not going to happen in this film, I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it.”

Spielberg not including English subtitles could perhaps stem from an artistic decision to reflect the film’s themes about an ethnic turf war between the Sharks and the Jets, rather than a political impulse.

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Prior to making the film, Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner met with students and faculty at the University of Puerto Rico to hear their perspectives on how the film should treat the difficult subject matter about a Puerto Rican gang facing off against a white American gang on the streets of New York.

“This will always be Romeo and Juliet,” Spielberg said. “But it also speaks a lot to what’s happening today in terms of what’s happening at the borders. It’s very relevant today to essentially the rejection of anyone who isn’t white. And that’s a big part of our story.”

West Side Story has come under attack in recent years, most specifically because the original 1961 Best Picture winner cast white actors (Natalie Wood) as Puerto Ricans and because the original musical did not portray a fair and balanced immigrant experience, critic claim. Isel Rodriguez, a theater history major, told Spielberg and Kushner that Puerto Ricans often leave the island out of necessity and are not always clamoring to be in America.

“No one leaves this island without sobbing. 300,000 people left the island after Maria and the scene at the airport was like a funeral. No one wants to leave. This is paradise,” said Rodriguez.

West Side Story, which stars Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, opens in theaters on December 10th.

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