Few would fail to acknowledge that Rita Moreno is a legend, even if you only recognize her from West Side Story. Her influence on Latinx representation in American media is far-reaching, and her continued presence on the big and small screen provides a bridge between Hollywood of the 50s and 60s to today. Mariem Pérez Riera’s documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It attempts to detail Moreno’s life and career in the wider context of Latinx representation, as well as telling an honest, not always pretty story of a performer almost undone by her desire to please.
Far from a celebrity puff piece, Rita Moreno sets Moreno’s life and career in Hollywood in the context of Classical Hollywood’s misogyny and racism. Most of us know Moreno first from her Oscar-winning turn in West Side Story, or from her appearances in Singin’ in the Rain or The Seven Year Itch; later from her appearances on TV, including most recently One Day at a Time. But Moreno had a long career before West Side Story, moving from Puerto Rico to New York as a child, performing in night clubs as an adolescent, and finally arriving in Hollywood at the age of seventeen. Her early career was primarily as the “native girl,” desired and then overthrown by the white hero, that required her to don an nonspecific foreign accent, dance, and appear in brownface. She suffered under the dual violence of Hollywood’s racism and sexism—objectified as a Latina, harassed by male executives, and abused by the system that profited off her.
The film pulls no punches in showcasing the racism and sexism of the Classical period, and the way in which actresses like Moreno were forced to either mask their identities or double down on what white audiences and white male executives (presumably) wanted to see from the “spicy Latina.” Throughout her career, Moreno struggled to escape from the Hollywood’s racism—even following West Side Story, she couldn’t get a part that didn’t involve gangs. Her consistent Othering means, as she says, that she struggled to show who she actually was, as an actress and a Latina, but also, more simply, as a human being.
As fantastic as she is as Anita in West Side Story, this also draws criticism—Moreno is in brownface there as well, singing about the superiority of America to Puerto Rico (though she points out that this is Anita’s opinion, not hers, and the film obviously undercuts it when Anita is targeted and nearly raped by the Jets), and speaking with a put-on “Puerto Rican” accent that is not her own. And while her performance is certainly groundbreaking and Moreno plays Anita with tenderness and complexity, this is indeed yet another example of the racism of Hollywood, and how Latinx performers were (and are) constantly Othered.
Moreno’s desire to please runs through the documentary, as she analyzes her relationship with Hollywood, with Marlon Brando, with her husband, and with herself. She was one of a pioneering group working within the Studio System who had to choose work and survival over authenticity and self, and she admits that this has shaped who she is as an actress and an individual. It’s surprising, in fact, how personal she actually gets, discussing experiences with harassment and assault, and analyzing herself in light of her career and the system she worked in.
The documentary also places Moreno’s barrier-breaking career in the wider context of Latinx representation in contemporary Hollywood and show business, with commentary from Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, and Justine Machado, among others. More significantly, in some ways, are the critiques from scholars and critics, addressing the complex relationship with Moreno’s onscreen identity, especially in West Side Story, which in itself reinforced stereotypes.
While the complexity of representation and stereotyping is certainly addressed, this is still a documentary meant to showcase the life and influence of a particular performer (herself with her own blind spots). So while there are times when the film edges into a charming but simple celebration of Moreno’s career, the heavier aspects of it deepen the viewing experience and raise some important issues.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is now playing.