A screen legend who fought racism, sexism: New doc profiles Rita Moreno

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The legendary actor Rita Moreno is finally being recognized as a Latina trailblazer.

After a career spanning seven decades and dozens of credits across film, theater and television, the Puerto Rican actor — who's one of 16 artists to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony — is the subject of the highly anticipated documentary, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday.

Directed by the award-winning filmmaker Mariem Pérez Riera, the 90-minute documentary chronicles Moreno’s extraordinary life and career, detailing the highs of her rise to stardom in Hollywood and the lows of the pernicious sexual abuse and relentless racism that she endured along the way. After bursting onto the scene in 1961 with her Oscar-winning performance in “West Side Story,” Moreno’s struggles as a Latina performer as well as her unabashed activism for gender and racial equality seem more relevant now than ever.

“The first time I interviewed Rita, I had prepared a series of questions about the biggest moments of her career. As soon as she started speaking, I immediately saw myself reflected in her answers,” Pérez Riera wrote in her director’s note. “I related to all she was saying, her stories about discrimination, the insecurities she felt because of the way others perceived her, the complicated love relationships, and the constant need to work three times harder to prove to others that she is worthy.”

Given that she shares a shared cultural heritage and an “artistic sensibility” with the 89-year-old actress, Pérez Riera felt that she could relate to Moreno in a way others couldn't. Along with fellow Puerto Rican and longtime collaborator Ilia J. Vélez-Dávila, Pérez Riera worked closely with a handful of creators — including “One Day at a Time” executive producers Norman Lear and Brent Miller — to create an intimate portrait of a woman who endured decades of hardship to break down barriers for the Latino performers that would follow her.

“We always knew that we wanted this documentary to not be just a showreel of her career and how great she is,” Pérez Riera told NBC News. “When I make or watch a documentary, I want to be able to know that person more than just what I already know, so it was very important for me to go deeper and to understand her as a human being.”

Related: “Interestingly, the character of Anita became my role model after all those years," said the Puerto-Rican actress and Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony recipient.

To give the documentary an air of authenticity, the filmmakers followed Moreno over the course of a few months in late 2018, offering a glimpse into her daily life — making her breakfast, doing her hair and makeup, driving herself to work long hours as an actor and producer. In addition to candid reflections from Moreno, the film features interviews with over a dozen of her friends and former colleagues, including fellow "West Side Story" actor George Chakiris, as well as Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Gloria Estefan, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“She is just a brilliant woman,” Vélez-Dávila told NBC News. “She is self-taught. She is street smart as well, so she is very wise and that really surprised and impressed me."

"She has that BS radar," Pérez Riera said, "and she loves to talk to anyone because I think that’s how she understands and gets more information of what’s going on in the world and not only in her bubble.”

In the documentary, Pérez Riera weaved stop-motion animation using paper dolls — popular during Moreno’s childhood — to explore “Rita’s inner child” and “to capture the duality of Rita and Rosita,” which was her nickname growing up. Moreno was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York as a young child.

“When I was writing the proposal, that [idea] came into my mind because in her book, she talks a lot about her mom dressing her and making her clothes since she was a seamstress,” said Pérez Riera. “I always imagined her having to put on these dresses to become the person her mom or the audience wanted her to be.”

Image: Rita Moreno (Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Image: Rita Moreno (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

During the first few decades of her career, Moreno was typecast as any ethnic minority that major Hollywood studios needed in their feature films — from Egyptian to Native American to over-sexualized Hispanic women — often with a complexion that was much darker than her own. Even after becoming the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar, Moreno struggled to find roles that suited her proven talent.

Moreno shows no signs of slowing down. After four successful seasons on the underrated sitcom “One Day at a Time,” she will produce and be one of the stars of Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story," playing a reimagined version of Doc, the owner of the corner store where Tony worked.

While Moreno might not fully understand the profound impact that she has had on generations of artists, Pérez Riera and Vélez-Dávila hope that viewers will be able to draw inspiration from her resilience.

“I would love people to be inspired by her story — not necessarily her accolades, but her continuous fight to become the person she is today,” Pérez Riera said. “Just her self-awareness, her wants to become a better human being, going through therapy in order to become free.”

Pérez Riera was referring to an episode Moreno wrote about in her 2013 memoir, her toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, which led to an attempted suicide a year before she won her Oscar.

“Mariem was very clear from the beginning on wanting to tell a story that would take Rita’s life as a leitmotif to tell these other parts of her life and not to tell a typical biopic about her life,” said Vélez-Dávila. “I think it’s a documentary for people to get inspired and to see that everything is really possible.”

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” premieres on Friday, Jan. 29, at 3 p.m. ET at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. A second screening will be available starting Sunday at 10 a.m. ET for 24 hours.

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