Trigger warning: this article includes discussions of sexual assault, rape, grooming, pedophilia, sexual coercion.
The first trailer for “West Side Story” (2021) was dropped during the 93rd Academy Awards. With Steven Spielberg at its helm and its star-studded cast as the crew, it has already been marked as a shoo-in for next year’s Oscars. Additionally, it has already received a degree of praise from the press that could make any movie a fan-favorite for years to come.
“West Side Story” is a certified classic. William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” inspired the 1957 musical, which was so beloved it merited a film adaptation in 1961. The 1961 film has been the most accessible medium to date. “West Side Story” (1961) is a fantastic adaptation of the musical, except for one glaring casting misstep. The role of Maria is played by Natalie Wood, a Jewish woman. Maria’s Latina identity is integral to both her character and the plot. Natalie Wood’s performance made Maria a role for Jewish women and has since been regarded as a primary piece of Jewish representation for decades.
The positive reception of the 2021 adaptation following the trailer drop rests on the history of Maria’s casting. “West Side Story” (2021) gets to represent the beloved story to a new audience, and they have made the conscious decision to cast Rachel Zegler -17 and Columbian American – as Maria. This chief casting decision is the crux of the praise, as it is the biggest representation of Spielberg’s efforts to return this story back to the community it represents.
The casting decisions of this film are what distinguish it, and the entirety of the discourse surrounding the film focuses on the genius casting, especially on Zegler’s position as a Hollywood underdog achieving her dreams. In building the praise of this adaptation on the casting decisions, the discourse has completely disregarded Ansel Elgort’s role as Tony, the lead male. If the praise is being built on the casting of the main characters, the conversation has intentionally left Elgort out, and what he has done that not only undermines that praise, but undermines Spielberg’s effort to make a socially conscious remake of a beloved movie.
Ansel Elgort broke into Hollywood as the beloved AugustusWaters in the film adaptation of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014). Since then, he has had a couple of major roles, but the major controversy he faces comes from the era of “The Fault in Our Stars” and the audience it was directed at.
Content warning: graphic description of rape, coercion, and sexual harassment.
“The Fault in Our Stars” was primarily directed at young girls ages 10-18, and the vast majority of fan attention Elgort received following his debut was from this demographic. In June of 2020, Twitter user @ItsGabby accused Ansel Elgort of raping her back in 2014, when she was 17 and he was 20. She also provided screenshots and photos of them together. She direct-messaged him when she was 16, and he gave her his private Snapchat so they could continue talking. Gabby’s post details how she was two days away from being seventeen when they texted, and that, when they met up when she was 17, he pressured her into engaging in sexual relations with him. With their age difference and his status as a major pop-culture figure, it is essential to include the implicit coercion that exists in any relationship with a power imbalance this large. Gabby’s initial tweet also includes her story where she details how she was too young to consent, too young to have sex, and said she didn’t want to, and that he imposed himself on her anyway. She includes quotes and comments Elgort made while it was happening that make it clear he was aware of her youth, and that he discredited her reluctance and refusal as naïve fear. He made comments like “we have to break you in” and commented on how sexy she’d be when she was older. Gabby’s account details every aspect of her body language that communicated that she did not consent to having sex with him, as well as how she dissociated and stayed completely still throughout. Gabby has diagnosed PTSD and panic attacks that she regularly deals with because of Elgort’s actions.
Despite the backlash working to discredit her, her allegations were all but confirmed.
Content warning: graphic descriptions end
Ansel Elgort’s response confirmed that he had sex with Gabby, knew her, that the screenshots were real, and that they did have a relationship. He denies that he raped or sexually assaulted her, and consistently stated how they had a consensual relationship between two adults. The only concession or apology he made is that he wasn’t completely respectful and that he’s “disgusted” by his actions.
With rape accusations, it is always important to give the benefit of the doubt to both parties. Most news outlets who covered the allegations granted Elgort this by discrediting the validity of Gabby’s claim and devaluing her evidence. They describe the screenshots and photographs by saying “alleged first interaction”, or “photo of young girl and Elgort”, refusing to confirm these photos include Gabby. Ansel Elgort took that argumentative bullet out of their gun by confirming their relationship and all of her evidence, though denying they did anything nonconsensual. I believe her, and, based on all her evidence and his response, you should too.
So then, what to do about the movie? The power of the 2021 remake is to rid the film of the controversy it faced in the past by casting Maria as a Latina woman, and asking Rita Moreno (a Puerto-Rican woman) to consult on the film gives it the representational ethos it needs to reinforce it in the public eye. Rachel Zegler deserves this role, and she has appropriately received attention that recognizes how big of an opportunity this is for her. The film has already been postponed in production, and since the trailer has been released, it is almost impossible to convince them to reshoot the entire movie without Ansel Elgort. The cast and crew of “West Side Story” (2021) have been silent on the allegations against Elgort, with the exception of Rachel Zegler as she liked several tweets calling people out to support victims of sexual assault by believing them.
In order to respect the work of Rachel Zegler and Rita Moreno, follow their careers and their other projects. But out of respect for Gabby and sexual assault survivors, do not support this movie. Do not give this movie your money by streaming it or seeing it in the theater. This remake is an insincere cash grab using the call of correct representation to reach a new demographic. Any ethos in their claims of social responsibility is lost in their radio silence on the allegations against Ansel Elgort. He has a major role in this film, and supporting it is directly communicating that rape is not a deal breaker. Keeping him in this film, as they are clearly doing, is simply besmirching this beloved story with another scandal, except this is one that cannot be redeemed years from now unless Elgort rapes another person who goes public with their story, Gabby’s trauma and the work she did to share it will be fruitless as Elgort’s career will continue to thrive from his major role in this major blockbuster. Don’t support this movie, as a consumer or as a bystander. Ansel Elgort has not been held responsible by the industry, so now it is our responsibility to be active consumers and continue the conversation about sexual assault and the entertainment industry to protect future audiences from falling prey to this known predator.