“I related to all she was saying, her stories about discrimination," said director Mariem Pérez Riera, "and the constant need to work three times harder ... "
Jan. 29, 2021, 2:02 PM EST By Max Gao
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.”