Why Steven Spielberg Refused To Use Subtitles In 'West Side Story' For Scenes In Spanish

The director explained his decision not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue in his retelling of the classic musical.
Rachel Zegler stars as Maria in Steven Spielberg's upcoming take on "West Side Story."
Rachel Zegler stars as Maria in Steven Spielberg's upcoming take on "West Side Story."
20th Century Studios

Steven Spielberg’s upcoming adaptation of “West Side Story” offers plenty of the same pleasures as the original Academy Award-winning film: star-crossed lovers, turf wars, and, thankfully, Rita Moreno.

But it also serves as a corrective to many of the issues that plagued the 1961 movie, particularly by casting Spanish-speaking Latinx actors instead of largely white actors as the Puerto Rican leads. While the film remains faithful to the spirit of its source material, the director takes a more authentic approach to his retelling by adding some modern updates, including the decision not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue.

Stretches of this new version feature actors speaking in Spanish without English subtitles. The creative choice potentially leaves non-Spanish-speaking viewers in the dark about certain exchanges between members of the Sharks and the larger Puerto Rican community depicted in the film, but Spielberg says the move was deliberate.

Speaking with IGN in a recent interview, the director explained that the lack of English subtitles in the film was “out of respect for the inclusivity of our intentions to hire a totally Latinx cast to play the Sharks’ boys and girls.”

Spielberg said he gave the casting director a “mandate” that all the actors playing the Puerto Rican characters needed to have “parents or grandparents or themselves from Latinx countries ... especially Puerto Rico.”

“That was very important and that goes hand-in-hand with my reasoning for not subtitling the Spanish,” Spielberg added. “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.”

The decision has been widely praised across social media with many appreciating the film’s commitment to diversity.

Others, however, noted how the lack of subtitles in scenes potentially alienates the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner also weighed in on the “intentional” decision to omit subtitles when characters are speaking Spanish throughout the film.

“That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help,” he told Collider. “It leaves it in the laps of the audience, or in the minds of the audience, to decide that they’re gonna be more attentive because you can tell pretty much what they’re saying.”

The choice rang true for Moreno, who starred in the 1961 film as Anita and became the first Latina to win an Academy Award for acting. This time around, she serves as an executive producer on the film and stars as Valentina, a revamped version of the soda shop owner Doc.

Moreno said non-Spanish speakers can still understand the film. “You really can,” she noted. “But just to reassure the audience, there’s a lot of English spoken. I just don’t want anyone to stay away.”

“West Side Story” hits theaters Dec. 10.

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