Insights · October 19th, 2011
Seattle’s Cinerama has been hosting the 70mm Film Festival for the past couple of weeks, featuring classic films from 2001: A Space Odyssey to My Fair Lady. Yesterday I was able to go see West Side Story. My first time ever having seen the musical, I was impressed with the cinematography (advanced for the ‘60s) and its interaction with the curved screen, which made me feel as if I was actually included in the events on screen.
Too bad the events on screen are beautifully choreographed displays of hatred, racism and murder. Referred to by both police and civilians alike as “PR’s, the Puerto Rican “Sharks”battle against the non-race-specific white “Jets”to be the best gang on the block. Each side gets daily doses of racial slurs and violent threats, a reflection of the intense civil rights problems in America in the ’60’s.
At the same time that this film highlights fundamental issues with rampant racism and inequality in America, West Side Story does a great job of making light of the situation with foolish insults and melodramatic dance numbers to call attention to the absurdity of violent discrimination. Placing this racially tense story in a musical setting, full of spontaneous dancing and beautiful melodies draws attention to the irrational nature of its content. Fight scenes on the playground are theatrical ballet sequences that correspond perfectly with orchestra music. Absolutely offensive situations presented in the film are lightened with lyrics and dialogue that demonstrate the ignorance of the kids that hate each other for no apparent reason except skin color.
The purpose of presenting a dark and serious subject like racism with a light touch is to show the audience how silly and unsubstantiated the “arguments”are for being discriminatory. It’s almost embarrassing to watch the explosive violence that stems from the smallest comment. Senseless anger and ridiculous name-calling seem petty and laughable while watching it on screen in this way.
And yet we unfortunately haven’t come too far since the 1960’s. There is still illogical hatred and discrimination that leads to incessant violence, and for what?
[Glen Hiemstra note: My wife and I had attended a screening of West Side Story before Mallory was able to go. Today in a speech to the annual conference of the Alliance for Children and Families, in Washington DC, when talking about demographic trends and specifically immigration, I described our experience this way…
For the last three weeks a Paul Allen owned “Cinerama” theater in Seattle has been doing a 70-millimeter Cinerama revival. My wife and I went to West Side Story, made in 1961, 50 years ago, a film that I had not seen as a child. It was amazing. It was the saddest experience, to see how far we have not come in our jingoistic, nativistic, astonishingly prejudiced attitudes toward immigrants. Then it was Puerto Ricans in New York, now it is Mexicans and others from Latin America. Then, major film writers and studios were willing to challenge the status quo in a block-buster, academy award winning film. Now only a low-budget indie film maker would dare to tackle such a subject, while leading political candidates for the highest office can talk about how high a fence to build and whether it should actively kill people. This is not right. Here is my prediction: In the future, when a fence has been built, American business leaders will be climbing ladders with megaphones, to beg those on the other side to please come and do some work.
I might add, West Side Story made me proud of the often maligned 60’s.]
Writer: Mallory Smith worked as Program Manager & Administrator at Futurist.com