Steven Spielberg's West Side Story remake was banned in several Middle Eastern countries this week because the new take on the iconic Broadway musical includes a transgender character played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas. LGBTQ references often lead to films being banned in countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The news comes just weeks after Marvel's Eternals, also distributed by Disney, was banned in the same region for its depiction of a same-sex kiss.
West Side Story will not be shown in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait, reports Variety. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the film was not given a release certificate. Censors in Oman and Qatar suggested cuts be made, but Disney refused. The move is not completely surprising as Hollywood movies with LGBTQ references are often banned or edited by Middle Eastern countries.
Eternals was also banned in Saudi Arabia. The film features a scene where Brian Tyree Henry's Phastos kisses his husband Ben, played by Haaz Sleiman. Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia.
In the new take on West Side Story, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made several changes to the original book by Arthur Laurents and the concept by Jerome Robbins. The character Anybodys, a tomboy member of the Jets, was re-written as a transgender character, with Menas in the role. Anybodys was played by Susan Oakes in the 1961 film adaptation. The new film also replaces store owner Doc with Valentina, a new character played by Rita Moreno.
West Side Story began life as a Broadway musical in 1957, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The 1961 film adaptation was directed by Robert Wise and Robbins and starred Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as Tony and Maria. In the new movie, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler fill the roles. Moreno won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the original film, in which she played Anita. That role is played by Ariana DeBose in the Spielberg film.
The story of West Side Story is inspired by Romeo & Juliet. Tony is a co-founder of the Jets, while Maria is the younger sister of Bernardo (David Alvarez in Spielgberg's film), a leader of the Sharks. Spielberg's remake has won critical acclaim since its premiere and is widely expected to be a major player at the 2022 Oscars. The movie opens on Dec. 10, with preview screenings the night before.