West Side Story and In The Heights present different immigrant stories

Two movies premiered in 2021 – West Side Story and In The Heights – with dramatically different takes on the immigrant experience in the United States. Together, these cinematically acclaimed films by Steven Spielberg and Lin-Manuel Miranda provide meaningful and significant contrasting perspectives on the American immigrant experience. Both are published on The Beacon blog.

Spielberg’s revision of the class urban tragedy

Steven Spielberg‘s West Side Story doubles down on ethnic violence in urban neighborhoods. The retelling of the 1957 Tony award-winning musical is well done. While the film is likely not commercially successful, Spielberg’s interpretation is a worthy updating of the story. It’s well produced, well acted, and socially relevant.

As I write in my full review is live at The Beacon:

 Spielberg and Kushner have effectively updated the story and its themes to place it in a more contemporary context. Moreover, in achieving this, the classic songs that have defined the musical in our cultural consciousness are likely to reach broader audiences and new generations.

The emphasis remains on the tragic consequences of failing to recognize and honor individuals for who they are, the soul-tearing nature of violence to resolve disputes, and the need to promote more honest and sincere dialogue to promote understanding and peace.

Unfortunately, as I discuss in the review, creative choices may well have doomed it at the box office.

Celebrating First Generation Americans

In striking contrast to Spielberg’s tragedy, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on the immigrant experience is challenging but more optimistic. In The Heights, based on his musical, does a fantastic job of capturing “the complexities, spirit, challenges, and aspirations of first-generation Latino Americans.” 

Miranda’s movie doesn’t pull punches on the struggles of Latin Americans trying to navigate American culture and urban life. Nevertheless, the story offers hope that resonates broadly with the American ethnic migration experience.  “In The Heights,” I write, “remains true to the classic immigrant hero’s journey. It remains a movie of hope, aspiration, and grit.”

A Study in Contrasts

Steven Spielberg’s tragedy and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pragmatic optimism are a study in contrasts. Both present different interpretations of the American ethnic immigrant experience. Both are fantastic movies well worth streaming, reflection, and discussion.

For links to all my 2021 movie reviews can be found here.

My current movie reviews can be found here.

An archive of all 180+ my movie reviews can be found here.

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series (syppublishing.com) has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).