The Volokh Conspiracy

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What Do You Get When You Cross a Colombian with a European? A Shark?

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Judging by the reviews, the new West Side Story movie sounds awesome. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

But I remain perplexed by the hullabaloo over the casting of Maria. Critics argued that the original 1961 movie was insensitive to Puerto Rican culture, in part because most of the Puerto Rican characters, the "Sharks" and the women in their circle, were played by white, non-Puerto Rican actors.

So, as I noted a while back on Volokh, director Steven Spielberg hired all sorts of cultural and diversity consultants and this is what he and they came up with:

"When we began this process a year ago, we announced that we would cast the roles of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino and the Sharks with Latina and Latino actors. I'm so happy that we've assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America's multifaceted Hispanic community," said Spielberg. "I am in awe of the sheer force of the talent of these young performers, and I believe they'll bring a new and electrifying energy to a magnificent musical that's more relevant than ever." ….

"I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast," said [Rachel] Zegler. "West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community."

I commented at Instapundit at the time:

Why do Puerto Rican characters in West Side Story need to be played by Latinos, but not Italian characters by people of Italian or (better yet, given the demographics of New York's Italian community, specifically Sicilian) descent? Why is having a Colombian American a politically correct choice to play a Puerto Rican? What do Colombia and Puerto Rico have in common besides different dialects of the Spanish language? If you were trying to cast an Australian of 1960, would casting an English-speaking actor from the US, or India, be "authentic"? Isn't kind of insulting to assume that all Spanish-speaking countries are interchangeable?

Meanwhile, Zegler, it turns out, is only half-Columbia. "Her father is of Polish ancestry on his own father's side, and of Irish, German, and Italian ancestry." In fact, assuming all the Sharks are Puerto Rican, and the Jets a mix of European ancestries, Zegler's ethnic background fits in better with the Jets than with the Sharks--unless, again, one assumes that all Latino subgroups are interchangeable. And for what it's worth, on the 2000 census sixty-two percent of Colombian Americans marked their "race" as white, one of the higher percentages among Hispanic groups.

In retrospect, I respect the fact that part of the issue here is ensuring that Latino actors do not get passed over for roles as they did in the past. But if the issue is instead cultural sensitivity, to Puerto Ricans, I still don't see why it's more culturally sensitive to Puerto Ricans to cast a half-Columbian, half-European actress from New Jersey as Maria, as opposed to a half-Russian, half-Armenian actress (Natalie Wood). Neither of them, after all, are Puerto Rican.

I was going to end the post there, but thinking about it further, I suppose some see Hispanics as a race, or at least as a quasi-race, and therefore Zegler is playing a character of the same race, given the historical American norm that "White And" = And. I'm not a fan of that norm, nor do I find the notion that Hispanics, who are multi-racial (just as Americans are), are a race congenial.

UPDATE: Over at the Daily Beast, Mandy Valdez wonders, "Why Can't 'West Side Story' Just Cast a Puerto Rican Maria?" As implied above, I'm not sympathetic to the argument that characters of a certain ethnicity must be played by an actor of that ethnicity. But, again, if you are going that route, it strikes me as at best clumsy and at worst offensive to suggest that you meet that demand by having a native-born American of half-Colombian, half-European descent play a migrant from Puerto Rico.

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  1. A better question is why, with all the “creative” people in Hollywood, do they have to remake a 60 year old movie that is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette instead of coming up with something a little more original?

    1. They don't have to.

      They chose to, as they choose to make any number of "franchise" movies, because they wanted to and no doubt thought it would be profitable.

      Free market. Give the customers what they want.

      Besides, lots and lots of "original" movies and plays are, more or less, retellings of earlier stories. Nothing wrong with that.

      1. Or in this case, a retelling of a retelling of a MUCH earlier story.

        But I agree with everything you said. I can't say that I would be much interested in seeing a new version of West Side Story if it weren't done by Spielberg. He could direct any story of his choosing, or none at all if he weren't inspired to do so at this point in his career, but the fact that he believed he could bring something uniquely him to this story certainly makes me interested in seeing it.

        Spielberg directing it creates a market for it. At least for many people.

    2. Hollywood is doing it for two reasons. (1) It supports the Hollywood "woke" narrative that we ought to notice race (though as David says, only those categories of "race" that the US "woke" bureaucracy wants us to notice). And (2) Like all of Hollywood's output of the last 20+ years (which is mostly remakes), it distracts the public from noticing that Hollywood is mostly communists and pedophiles.

      I'm staying away and waiting for God to drop the next lightning bolt.

  2. The obvious answer here is because certain race preference are the cause of the day. And these are "right" because the "correct" people are now being selected based upon their racial classification.

  3. So, I want to make a musical play about Alexander Hamilton. What race should my lead actor be?

    1. maybe the same as the original A. Hamilton? just for realism.

    2. Make a play about those liberals in the 70s you said in the last thread you heard liked the decision because they wanted to lower the black population.

  4. Well, at least Spielberg didn't say 'latinx'

  5. The reason America historically had fewer Latino immigrants is because Spain and Portugal colonized the New World and so Spanish and Portuguese emigrants could go to Cuba and Mexico and Argentina and Chile and Brazil. So the World Cup is essentially Europe and Latin America because Latin America is where many Europeans emigrated to because at the time they believed those countries held more opportunity for them. So the only reason Latinos are a growing minority population in America is because Cuba and Mexico and Argentina can’t get their economic act together and not because America is racist towards Latinos. Btw, Cuba and Brazil had slavery after America…so Latin Americans of European descent are more evil and racist than white Americans.

    1. Generalize much?

    2. "So the only reason Latinos are a growing minority population in America is because Cuba and Mexico and Argentina can’t get their economic act together and not because America is racist towards Latinos."

      Does anyone claim that Latinos are a growing population in America because America is racist towards Latinos? I thought it was the other way around.

      1. No, because we were racist towards Latinos in the past….remember “Operation Wetback”?? Of course I counter with Desi Arnaz and Adolfo Luque to show we weren’t racist towards Latinos that were clearly of European descent.

  6. This post exposes how much the bloggers here live in a whiteworld, as white as the blog itself.

    If you hung out around Hispanics you would not be asking this question. My wife is from the Dominican Republic. There is a bond between her and other Hispanics and it's not just because they speak in Spanish to each other. She is "in" with people from Peru, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Puerto Rico. Descended from white Europeans, I am very much an outsider is such situations.

    1. how does someone politely say, "Who Gives a Fuck?"

      1. Now muted. No need for you to respond to my comments because I won't see your response.

        1. Then you should mute me too, because IDGAF either.

    2. "not just because they speak in Spanish to each other." If you say so. In Israel, people who speak English are considered "Anglos," and they do tend to hang out with each other--Americans, British, Australians, South Africans, though even more so with their subgroup. And guess why? It's because they all speak English, and, while not culturally the same, they have more in common with each other than they do with, say, French or Argentine immigrants. That doesn't mean that it would be "culturally sensitive" to hire an Australian to play an American immigrant character, much less an Australian who was actually half Moroccan and grew up in Israel.
      PS you are descended from white Europeans. But where do you think Spain is? (Dominicans have less European heritage than just about any other Latino group, but overall a bare majority of Latino ancestry is European, and most Latinos self-identify as white--ranging from around 20% of Dominicans to around 80% of Cubans).

      1. It does no good to point at a map and note that Spain is part of Europe.

        The Hispanics I'm talking about don't consider Spaniards to be one of "them". They consider them to be snooty and make fun of the way they talk (pronouncing the letter "c" like a soft "th" gives the impression of lisping).

        Aside from speaking Spanish they are bound by a common media which they spend a lot of time with. They play what we call "soccer". And there are problems with immigration. They all know people who are undocumented and they care a lot about them -- they're co-workers, friends, lovers. In short, a common culture and sensibility.

        1. Ah, the truth emerges. "The Hispanics I'm talking about" is no longer all Hispanics or all Dominicans, and your anecdotes slide into irrelevance.

      2. Your point that there is an obvious lack of any internally logical and consistent path to the end results of both general race classifications, as they are understood in this context, and acceptable casting parameters, is spot on. Congrats. But poking holes in the fabric of internal consistency will not persuade anyone who currently adheres to these culturally accepted (and by that I mean the culture of the entertainment industry which includes fear of offending groups that, once offended, have a tendency to make your days more complicated than they otherwise would be) results. But I assume you know that. And I suspect you know the answers to your questions. But I can take a shot.

        Americans most likely group Latinos together for the same reason they group Asians together and people with black skin together and all Native American Tribes together: because that's what we do. We're lame like that. No doubt it all stems from ignorance and prejudice and our tendency to defer to visual generalities over almost anything else. And over time when immigrants and their dependents see themselves classified in a certain general way by the majority of a population, they tend to just go with it. It's less of a hassle, and frankly they have enough headaches as it is. Sure, we're all Asian. Whatever.

        And over time the descendants of European immigrants probably ended up doing the same thing with each. Sure, the early generations of European immigrants were fiercely divided along the lines of their ancestral homelands, but after awhile... who has the energy? We're white, they're not, let's go put mayonnaise on our sandwiches and get on with owning everything.

        Now I'm sure the proponents of the current systems you criticize with your clearly racist logic-centering bias have their own well rehearsed talking points that explain everything in much more complicated terms. I'm sure it involves stuff about repressers repressing, and classifications rooted in white supremacy... basically all the stuff I said but using words intended to make you think they went to college.

        We're basically lazy and scared, and already have a headache. We'd rather avoid asking too many logic and methodology questions of people who, without exception, will make our headache worse than it was before we started in with the all the questions. Easier to just follow the casting parameters they gave us this week. There are so many actors out there who are all good enough that we don't need to fight for anyone who doesn't check whatever predetermined boxes they tell us is important.

        Is it all cleared up now?

        1. Actually, Americans group Hispanics together largely because the government decided to, for reasons I go into in my forthcoming book. Until the 1970s, also no one considered Puerto Ricans, Mexican, and Cuban Americans to be in the same groups, least of all Puerto Ricans, Mexican, and Cuban Americans, and the leading "Latino" groups, the more mainstream LULAC or the more radical Chicano groups, were not Latino at all, but Mexican American. Eventually, they saw the value in having a base in the NE and Flordia. But initially Chicano activists in particular wanted nothing to do, politically, with Cubans, or for that matter with "white" Mexican Americans, e.g., descendants of old families in New Mexico.

          1. Look, quit messing with my drunk history. I saw no need to reveal spoilers for your upcoming book. You can do the details. But I choose to conveniently generalize in a less than totally coherent fashion, like the patriotic American that I am.

              1. This is probably the most amusing exchange ever in the history of VC. Well played!

        2. "Americans most likely group Latinos together for the same reason they group Asians together and people with black skin together and all Native American Tribes together: because that's what we do. "

          FWIW, some Americans do that; others think that viewing people as members of groups rather than individuals is quite wrong.

          Non-ethnic example: we once traveled to the wedding of a family member. A chatty waitress asks 'What brings you to town?'. We allowed it was for a wedding. 'Who are the lucky couple?'. We identified Mr. Groom and Ms. Bride. The waitress' brow furrows. 'Is that the Smith county Brides or the Jones County Brides?'. We opined that we thought she was from Jones County. The waitress evinces palpable relief: 'Oh, that's good, the Jones county Brides are good people'.

          So I agree that many Americans do that kind of tribal classification, but some of us are quite opposed to it, much preferring to just judge everyone on their individual merits. And we don't like to be ... lumped with the people who lump people by race/ethnicity/county/whatever.

          1. Not only do we engage in tribal classification, we invent new tribes containing people who didn't even know they were in the same tribe until we educated them on the matter.

            By utilizing this innovative tribal lumping system, we found a way to retain all the irresistible ugliness of traditional tribalism without the headache of having to keep track of all those individual tribes, with all their distinct characteristics, and rich cultural histories, yada yada and so on.

            Sure, I suppose we could just view everyone as individuals, and judge each person based on nothing more than individual character traits that actually matter, rather than make sweeping assumptions based on, at best superficial, and at worst totally arbitrarily assigned group classifications. But all things considered, isn't it way more efficient and far less taxing to just assume hive-like sameness amongst conveniently large groups, whose members receive their classification based on shared ancestral geographic origin, but only sort of? Like usually from the same hemisphere, but now always?

            When phrased like that, can we still even question the necessity to only cast actors who would share the same meticulously assigned group classification as the character they're to portray, if the character they're to portray weren't totally made up?

            1. I yield the point, sir.

    3. I do hang out around Hispanics, and this is not my experience at all. Of course actual Spanish speakers are more likely to associate with other actual Spanish speakers than they are with non-Spanish speakers; that's only natural, since people tend not to socialize with those with whom they cannot communicate. (And when one is a linguistic minority in particular, one is eager to find people with whom one can.) But — setting aside that we're not even talking about language ability as opposed to ethnicity — they do not at all view themselves as interchangeable. (In fact, they often have strong prejudices about those with different Latin American national origins.) In particular, Puerto Ricans are all citizens and have a very different American experience than other Hispanics.

      1. That is not incompatible with what I said. They're hardly "interchangeable"; my wife can tell what country someone's from by just looking at them and if not, once she hears the first two words out of their mouths. And prejudices do exist (my wife says Puerto Ricans have a reputation for being sneaky, and the prejudice against very dark skin seems to be a human universal), but like most prejudices they disappear with actual contact.

        1. I didn't say "indistinguishable"; I said "interchangeable." By that I mean that they don't view themselves as part of some Hispanic/Latino/etc. grouping. When there's, e.g., a construction project, they don't say, "Oh, good, they're hiring Hispanics there." They say, "Oh, Dominicans work there." After work they go to the Honduran bar or the Colombian bar, not a Hispanic bar. They read the Ecuadoran newspaper, not a generic Hispanic one.

          (To be clear, I'm in NYC; I expect that if you're in some smaller metropolitan area in which these individual slices are small in number, they might be more likely to band together.)

      2. David, my Argentine immigrant acquaintances hang around with other Argentines, Peruvians with Peruvians, Cubans with Cubans, etc. It tends to be non-immigrants who would be more catholic in their associations, especially politically active, liberal ones, who adopt a "Hispanic" or "Latino" identity. Which makes sense because "Hispanic" and "Latino" as concepts only exist in the US, and not in their home countries.

        1. You bet your sweet ass America invented those generalized racial classifications. Just like rock and roll, but harder to copyright.

      3. Back in my law days, on my way out I did a bunch of translation doc review for Spanish/Portuguese cases. There was absolutely a shared Latino cultural bond amongst the native speakers. It appeared to me, an outsider, to include both immigrants and natives.
        But within that there was absolutely still subgroups based on nation of origin. And also whether they lived in Miami for a while. So you know, the usual variations among a larger ingroup.

        IOW, race is complicated. This is not news. Nor does not make attempting to navigate the complicated social waters silly.

        1. Yes, a well intentioned attempt to navigate these complicated waters is important. But generally a key aspect to successful navigation is having a specific destination. Otherwise successful navigation just means sailing about aimlessly while trying not to hit any icebergs. And if the rules about what is or isn't an iceberg aren't clear, that doesn't make it any easier.

          I don't think anything DB is saying here is wrong. And I tend to assume his intentions are nothing but good. But it's always going to be difficult successfully evaluating specific rules we're given without really understanding, and agreeing on, both short term and long term goals that these rules are meant to help us achieve.

          I think attempting to lower the barrier to entry for actors who traditionally had a difficult time getting roles due to their ethnicity is a fine goal, and one that should be at least considered when casting. But I think the notion that characters of specific ethnicities, or characters belonging to traditionally marginalized groups, can ONLY be played by actors who share that specific group membership for the purposes of cultural authenticity (and by that I do not mean believability in terms of audience enjoyment, I'm talking about the assertion that some kind of moral cultural ownership exists in and of itself) is quite bad. And in this context specifically, it undermines the very essence of what acting even is. And giving a role to an A-list star of "correct" cultural heritage over another A-list star because the second one lacks the proper cultural heritage does nothing in the way of expansion of opportunity for anyone.

          I don't even know if well intentioned people agree on the long-term goal anymore, if they ever did. MLK kind of laid out a pretty decent one in my opinion. Agreeing on that goal wouldn't by itself dictate the objectively best path to getting there, but it would probably help.

    4. Yes, your anecdotes are not data.

      1. Sick burn on the OP.

      2. Data is nothing more than a giant pile of anecdotes that have been run through a mathematical blender.

    5. My personal experience, with my wife being Chilean, is everybody in SA hates everyone else from other SA countries. They are all thieves or arrogant or uncultured etc.

      1. They got nothing on the intense hatred Eastern Europeans have for each other. Serbs and Croats had an almost attack on sight in the 60s and earlier 70s. Maybe still, I moved out of the area.

        You want to see anti Mexican feelings. Read Ceaser Chavez writings when he was trying organize the farm workers.

    6. I think it's the Spanish, my wife is Cambodian, and while there is some cultural affinity to Vietnamese, and Thais, there is hardly any to other Asians like Chinese or Japanese or Indonesians. And the cultural affinity to Thais and Vietnamese is due to they have large minority populations of ethnic Khmer, in fact most of southern Vietnam was part of the Khmer Kingdom into the 1800's.

    7. My wife and I speak Spanish with a Mexican accent, having learned it in California. When in Chile we got a very cold reception until we explained we were Norteamericano. Turns out, Chilenos have a very low opinion of Mexicans.
      There is some solidarity, but not much, among Spanish speakers.

    8. Your wife is an exception. When polled as to what label they prefer, a large number of people of Latin American decent prefer hyphenated names - Mexican-American, Cuban-American, etc. The connection made by labels like Hispanic and Latino is artificial, more for census data than out of any natural identity. Americans, Canadians and New Zealanders all speak English. We do not 'identify' with each other in any essential way. To paraphrase Marx (not Groucho), onions in a sack are not 'sack onions.'

      1. That might be something of an overstatement. If you're an American expat living in, I dunno, Moscow, you're likely to feel some affinity for other Anglospherians even if your primary identity and allegiance is American.

        I know when I travel in a country where I don't speak the language, and I bump into a Canadian, I'm not like, "Ewww, Canadian." I'm like, "Cool. Another English speaker." (Unless they're Quebecois. Then I break out the "Ewww.") Though I'm not sure the U.S.-otherAnglo dynamic is the same, because (a) as the 800 lb gorilla, we don't really have negative views of other English-speaking countries; and (b) American isn't an ethnicity. (Don't ever call a Scottish person "English" if you value your life.)

    9. She is "in" with people from Peru, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Puerto Rico. Descended from white Europeans, I am very much an outsider is such situations.

      So she and her friends are ethnic bigots.

  7. So Spielberg doesn't think actors can act?
    Does he only cast PRs who are in gangs?
    Are all the Jets gang members?
    Does he pretend that casting based on race is not racist?
    Who is John Galt?

  8. Too bad Laurence Olivier isn't around any more, he would be a great Maria.

    1. You sound cranky and disaffected, Cal Cetin.

      Has recognizing that your stale, ugly thinking is doomed in modern, improving America made you alienated and dispirited as you condemn all of this damned, reason-based progress?

      1. You couldn't tell Laurence Olivier from Lawrence of Arabia, you half-witted chimpanzee.

        1. Supposedly Marlon Brando turned down the role of Lawrence. That's a little hard to imagine.

          1. So did Tony Curtis. [According to something I just made up]

  9. What do you get when you cross a Sicilian with a Pole?

    Someone who'll make you an offer you can't spell.

    1. In referring to spelling difficulties, I was thinking about names like Tadeusz Kościuszko and Mike Krzyzewski.

      I wasn't stooping to "dumb Pole" jokes, which Lord forbid.

    2. What do you get when you cross Batman with an elephant?

      Flatman!

  10. A relatively predictable discussion at a strikingly White, improbably male, right-wing blog that looks like a Federalist Society meeting instead of like modern America (especially modern American academia).

    If this is how you guys want to spend your time while awaiting replacement, enjoy your final flickering moments of cultural relevance.

    1. Actors in Hollywood and the UK are currently arguing that Trans and Gay parts can only be performed by Trans or Gay actors. If so, then perhaps straight parts can only be acted by straight actors.
      Goodbye, Rock Hudson.

  11. Similar problems arose this year here on the Outer Banks of NC, when the producers of the long-running Lost Colony musical decided they needed to cast real Native Americans in the Native American Roles. The only problem was that the actual tribes that were on and around Roanoke Island in 1587 no longer exist. I'm not sure the Navajo they ended up casting for one of the characters is any more accurate than your average white guy.

  12. Another racist writer for Reason, big surprise. No one cares about the new west side story, but feel free to get your violent racist panties in a twist. At least Bernstein isn’t talking about killing other people.

  13. But making John Clark into a black character is ok? The head spins. Let me simplify. The producer can hire whoever he/she want. Period. They should hire the best actor for the part. Any consideration of race is racist. Spielberg is just the latest in the new line of Lester Maddox wannabes.

  14. It does seem pretty stupid that, if you're going to engage in 'racist' casting, (Or just casting that reflects the actual identity of the characters in the source material.) you couldn't at least get it right.

  15. Natalie Wood was not half Armenian. Wood's mother's first husband was Armenian, but her biological father was Russian, as was her mother.

  16. I lean towards your response as well but to steel man the other side I suppose someone could say this:

    What's relevant is ensuring that people who have the traits which provoke discrimination are given opportunities. In some fields you can just focus on objective assesments but in an area like TV you can't give actors a test so a useful heuristic to reduce the extent to which minority actors are shut out of the profession is to ensure they get cast whenever the script calls for a minority.

    On this theory it doesn't matter at all whether Puerto Ricans see the actor who gets cast as a Puerto Rican but whether people who are inclined to discriminate against a group (e.g. Latinos) would lump them together.

    1. "What's relevant is ensuring that people who have the traits which provoke discrimination are given opportunities."

      This is a tangent, but you know which group of actors and actresses faces the harshest discrimination based on an immutable characteristic? Ugly ones.

      This PSA is brought to you by the National Association for the Advancement of Ugly People. We're Here! We're Ugly! We're not gonna take it any more!

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