West Side Story is a 1960’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The film is set in New York City and centers around a feud over turf between two gangs; the Sharks and the Jets. In Zoot Suit, Luis Valdez takes us on a journey into the pachuco gang lifestyle that was popular in the barrios of Los Angeles in the 1940s. The film is based on real-life events in which Latinos were persecuted (Zoot Suit Riots and the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial). Thematically, both films explore urban and gang life, racial tensions, family ties, and gender roles.
West Side Story was primarily based off the hit Broadway musical. The gist of the story is that two people—Tony and Maria—are from two different cultures, Polish and Spanish. Tony used to be a part of the gang the Jets, but isn’t anymore. However, they find love even in the midst of the gang rivalry. “When Riff's best friend (and former Jet) Tony and Bernardo's younger sister Maria meet at a dance, no one can do anything to stop their love. Maria and Tony begin meeting in secret, planning to run away. Then the Sharks and Jets plan a rumble under the highway - whoever wins gains control of the streets. Maria sends Tony to stop it, hoping it can end the violence.
Similarly, Zoot Suit dealt also with gang issues that plagued young Latinos, albeit: the setting was a little different (Los Angeles instead of New York); the movie was based on a play, not a musical; and that this movie did not focus centrally on a love story but more about being in the gang. Unfortunately, the gang talked about in the Zoot Suit movie were unlawfully arrested, with no evidence that a crime had ever been committed by anyone in the gang.