I remember the first time I saw West Side Story. It was my first musical and my mom detailed every moment, but most importantly she explained to me why Anita, and the actress who played her, was so important. My mom told Rita Moreno‘s story – what was public about it of course – and explained how she was the only Puerto Rican lead, despite the characters’ identities. It was almost mythic, how my mom talked about Rita. And as I pushed play on Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, I expected another documentary focusing on her stardom, her power, and her success. But instead, what I got was an intimate and vulnerable look at a woman, not just an icon.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is a documentary directed by Mariem Pérez Riera and produced by Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda. While Rita is the focus, it also features George Chakiris, Héctor Elizondo, Gloria Estefan, Tom Fontana, Morgan Freeman, Mitzi Gaynor, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, and more. The film documents the over 70-year career of Rita Moreno and how she has defied both her humble upbringing and Hollywood’s relentless racism to become a celebrated and beloved actor who has achieved the height of entertainment success as one of the the rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) Award Winners.
The film starts with Rita Moreno’s childhood. Born into poverty on a Puerto Rican farm, she and her seamstress mother immigrated to New York City when Moreno was five years old, leaving behind other members of her family including her brother. While the film follows Rita Moreno’s life and history, marking her accomplishments across time, it also does much more. For starters, the film takes time to situate her career within Hollywood history. No, this isn’t just charting her iconic roles, instead, Pérez Riera artfully details the reality of the world that Rita Moreno succeeded in. We see how she was cast as any ethnic minority the Hollywood studios needed filled. How she took the same accent across ethnicities be it Polynesian, Native American or Egyptian, and how the studios didn’t care.
We also see how despite being the first Latina actress to win an Academy Award for her role as Anita in West Side Story (1961), the studios continued to offer Moreno lesser roles as ethnic minorities that didn’t move beyond stereotypes. In her career, while long and storied, is one that took place through struggle. That is a key element. By featuring other prominent Latina entertainers, we see how her treatment is still present today, and while the industry has progressed, it wasn’t easy and it still isn’t where it needs to be.
The other element that makes Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It stand out is the way it contextualizes adversity. As much as we can look at the icon and see her on the other end of the struggle, she isn’t left unchanged by them. In fact, the film works to showcase her vulnerability through it all. When we contextualize hardship, we often only see narratives that put strength on a pedestal in the sense that we only see strength as an unwavering faith in overcoming. We see strength but we do not see the pain that comes with it.
In this documentary, Rita Moreno opens up her life, and in doing so, opens her wounds and lays bare her past. She discusses her mental health struggles with depression, suicide, and her survival of sexual assault. While her resiliency is on display, it isn’t presented as the only way of survival. It’s put in context and highlighted that her resiliency shouldn’t have been necessary to succeed but she had to because of the prejudice and abuse around her.
By contextualizing Rita Moreno in Hollywood history, both for her roles and within the bigoted history of the industry, and taking time to discuss the importance of therapy and mental health, this documentary succeeds. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is vulnerable and intimate. It’s a walk through the ups and more importantly the downs of the icon’s life. This vulnerability does more than serve as inspiration and history, it serves as a way for us to see an open and conversation of struggle in a way that we don’t see in our communities. The film isn’t “feisty” it’s heartfelt, it’s somber, and it’s powerful in the hope it presents. Not in sanitizing overcoming adversity, but in presenting survival and opening an important conversation about trauma and moving forward.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is in theaters now.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
By contextualizing Rita Moreno in Hollywood history, both for her roles and within the bigoted history of the industry, and taking time to discuss the importance of therapy and mental health, this documentary succeeds. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is vulnerable and intimate. It’s a walk through the ups and more importantly the downs of the icon’s life.