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West-Side Stories

Osita Nwanevu
5 min read
West-Side Stories
Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


Some of the craziest things ever to have happened at the Oscars seem to happen just about every year now. Still, I, like most people, couldn’t be bothered to watch this time around, which was clearly a mistake. How was I supposed to know Smith was going to clock Rock? It’s really not fair.

I did give watching the likely nominees a real try months ago, but I got busy and COVID briefly got worse, so I never quite caught up. I have enjoyed reading about this year’s crop and the state of the movies in general, though. Ross Douthat recently put out a flawed but thoughtful column on the decline of the Oscars telecast and adult films more broadly:

There are 10 best picture nominees, and many of them look like the kind of Oscar movies that the show so desperately needs. “West Side Story”: Steven Spielberg directing an update of a classic musical! “King Richard”: a stirring sports movie lifted by a bravura Will Smith performance! “Dune”: an epic adaptation of a science-fiction classic! “Don’t Look Up”: a big-issue movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence! “Drive My Car”: a three-hour Japanese film about the complex relationship between a widowed thespian and his young female chauffeur!
OK, maybe that last one appeals to a slightly more niche audience. But the point is that this year’s nominees offer their share of famous actors, major directors and classic Hollywood genres. And yet, for all of that, almost nobody went to see them in the theaters. When the nominees were announced in February, nine of the 10 had made less than $40 million in domestic box office. The only exception, “Dune,” barely exceeded $100 million domestically, making it the 13th-highest-grossing movie of 2021. All told, the 10 nominees together have earned barely one-fourth as much at the domestic box office as “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
Even when Hollywood tries to conjure the old magic, in other words, the public isn’t there for it anymore.

As he writes, technology and globalization have each played a role in changing the industry. I wish he’d spent more time talking about consolidation and the grip Disney in particular now has on every level of the industry. Naturally, as a conservative, he has a bit more to say about “the more general teenage-ification of Western culture,” and “the extension of adolescent tastes and entertainment habits deeper into whatever adulthood means today.”

“Western culture” here functionally means “American culture,” and our global dominance means our cultural decline is functionally the world’s problem. At The New Republic, Dexter Fergie has a review out of Sam Lebovic’s A Righteous Smokescreen: Postwar America and the Politics of Cultural Globalization, a book on how our cultural empire was forged. As Lebovic writes, the absence of potential competitors by the end of World War II is part of the story ⁠— most of the world was too impoverished or war-ravaged to catch up to us or to resist the utilization of new international free speech and press freedom doctrines to cement American cultural power.

[W]hen 600 or so journalists, media magnates, and diplomats arrived in Geneva in 1948 to draft the press freedom clauses for both the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, definitional difficulties abounded. Between what the U.S. meant by “freedom of information” and what the rest of the world needed lay a vast expanse.
For the American delegates, the question belonged to the higher plane of moral principle. The delegation wanted to extend into the international sphere the classic liberal notion of press freedom, which would prohibit governments from censoring the news and enshrine the rights of journalists to access sources and to dispatch the news across borders.
But representatives of other states had more earthly concerns. The war had tilted the planet’s communications infrastructure to America’s advantage. In the late 1940s, for example, the U.S. consumed 63 percent of the world’s newsprint supply; to put it more starkly, the country consumed as much newsprint in a single day as India did over the course of a year.
The failure to redistribute resources, the lack of multilateral investment in producing more balanced international flows of information, and the might of the American culture industry at the end of the war—all of this amounted to a guarantee of the American right to spread information and culture across the globe.

The American film industry took particular advantage of the new world order, working with the State Department to “dismantle other countries’ quota walls for foreign films,” Fergie writes. “By 1949, American films made up around half of the European and Asian markets, 62 percent of the African market, 64 percent of the South American market, and three-quarters of the Central American and Pacific markets.” In 2016, he notes, the six largest American studios accounted for more than half of global box office sales.

We haven’t reciprocated the world’s interest in us ⁠— as Parasite director Bong Joon-ho quipped after winning the Golden Globe for best foreign language film in 2020, an inch’s worth of subtitles at the bottom of a screen remains a remarkably insuperable barrier for American moviegoers to overcome. Lebovic’s book argues that has as much or more to do with policy as it does with simple cultural provincialism ⁠— Cold War censorship on foreign material and restrictions on the immigration of supposed political and cultural radicals didn’t help us any.

While we’re a more open society today, we’re also succumbing to an increasingly xenophobic political culture. And given the way globalization has played out, the external influences we might once have expected to shake things up for us here are more likely to simply feed translations of American culture back to us. That’s not a good bind to be in, and we can’t expect the megacorporations now serving as our major cultural institutions to help us out. Somehow, we’ll have to build new and better institutions ourselves.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Ariana DeBose ⁠— one of the few parts of Spielberg’s West Side Story that’s really stuck with me, frankly ⁠— is the first openly queer actress of color to win an Academy Award. From Variety:

An emotional DeBose took a moment to acknowledge the milestone and what it means for representation on screen.
“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. Look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color and Latina who found her life and strength in art,” she said to loud cheers and applause from the audience. “That’s what I believe we are here to celebrate. So to anybody who has ever questioned your identity, ever, ever, ever, — or you find yourself living in the gray spaces — I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us.”

A Song

Here’s a phenomenal cover of the theme from Shaft by the Kashmere Stage Band, a group of Texas high schoolers active in the late 1960s and early 1970s.