Steven Spielberg Refused to Use Subtitles in West Side Story and Give English the Power Over Spanish

Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” has received universal acclaim, starting off awards season on a strong note with a National Board of Review win for Best Actress (and notching a spot on the group’s 10 best list) and a New York Film Critics Circle win for Best Cinematography. The director makes a key creative decision in the film not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue. While some could argue this choice leaves non-Spanish speakers out of the loop, Spielberg’s cast is so expressive that scenes in the film prove universal no matter what language they are spoken in. That effect was a driving point behind Spielberg’s decision.

Speaking to IGN in a recent interview, Spielberg said that he chose to not subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue in the film “out of respect for the inclusivity of our intentions to hire a totally Latinx cast to play the Sharks’ boys and girls.”

“That was a mandate that I put down to Cindy Tolan who cast the movie, that 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.

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

In his B+ review of “West Side Story,” IndieWire’s senior film critic David Ehrlich called Spielberg’s decision to omit subtitles a “genius” move that “offers [this take on the material] a richer sense of context than any previous version of the show has been allowed before.” Ehrlich added of the movie, “It’s a wonderful musical, and an unabashed Steven Spielberg movie. And the moments in which it most comfortably allows itself to be both of those things at once leave you convinced that some harmonies are worth waiting for.”

“West Side Story” opens in theaters December 10.

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