In the introduction to the Rita Moreno documentary, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, a 90-minute masterpiece by Puerto Rican director Mariem Pérez Riera, we see the icon herself posing in an elegant striped chair in front of a cluttered shelf that houses her many, many awards. Dressed in a black blazer with a giant flower broach, bedazzled earrings, and peach-colored glasses, she hints at what’s to come with poise and a mischievous smile. The shot is, in short, Rita: classy, regal, but also quirky and relatable.
Before the intro fades to a black-and-white photo of Rita in one of her most famous roles, Anita from West Side Story, the actress sets the tone for the rest of the documentary with this quote: “People who have seen it [the documentary] have come to tell me that they’ve been inspired by it. Now that is something that I never, ever expected. I don’t think that’s why you do things about your life – you do things about your life because you think it may be helpful to people, perhaps, to people who’ve had the kind of problems that I’ve had in the past. And of course we’re talking about being an outlier.”
Rita learned not to “shut up and be sexy,” as one director told her, but instead to shake the stereotypes assigned to her as a Latina in Hollywood and take control of her career…
Artfully linked by transitions featuring animated paper dolls – an allusion to Rita’s childhood pet name of muñequita (little doll) – the rest of the film explores just how much of an outlier Rita was and continues to be as one of America’s most exceptional Latina entertainers. The documentary is just as much a commentary on representation, equality, dignity and resilience as it is about Rita herself, which makes its impact that much greater. Through sit-downs with Rita, interviews with her biographers, and amazing archival footage, we see her not only as a trailblazing actress, but also a feminist and an activist for racial equality and environmental protection at a time when holding such values – and what’s more, acting on them – was highly atypical.
One of the most surprising things about the documentary is how candidly sensitive topics are discussed. For example, filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner rather boldly describes Rita as coming from a “colonial migrant background” because of her Nuyorican identity, and Rita herself is incredibly vulnerable at times. Alone in front of the camera, sometimes stuttering or with tears in her eyes, she speaks with a breathless honesty of her experiences with racism, sexual assault, emotional abuse, abortion, and attempting suicide after ending her infamous relationship with Marlon Brando.
Even the film’s soundtrack is an ode to Rita Moreno and Latin power. Weaving between Spanish, English, and Spanglish – much like Rita does throughout the documentary.
However, never is Rita portrayed as a damsel in distress: she’s her own heroine, not just a survivor, but a fighter and an advocate for others. It’s amazing to watch her transformation from a somewhat timid actress who was typecast and exoticized – using what she called her “universal ethnic accent” because directors couldn’t (and didn’t care to) distinguish between the accents of non-Anglo peoples – to a confident, powerful performer. Rita learned not to “shut up and be sexy,” as one director told her, but instead to shake the stereotypes assigned to her as a Latina in Hollywood and take control of her career, once going seven years without making a movie because she wasn’t satisfied with the kinds of roles she was being offered.
When presenting Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It at the DocLands film festival, Pérez Riera spoke about how meaningful it was for her, as a Puerto Rican woman herself, to direct this documentary about one of the most groundbreaking women the island has ever produced. The insight into Rita’s life that comes from that shared positionality definitely shines through in the film: Pérez Riera deftly incorporates the voices of some of entertainment’s biggest names – Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, and others – to speak about themes of race, sex, and agency in storytelling with all the required nuance rather than the tokenism that tends to be more common nowadays.
Perhaps one of this documentary’s best qualities is its ability to tell the story of a Latina icon – and all that her journey to stardom represents for women and the Latinx community – without ever losing sight of her humanity.
Even the film’s soundtrack is an ode to Rita Moreno and Latin power. Weaving between Spanish, English, and Spanglish – much like Rita does throughout the documentary – it features classics like “Lamento Borincano,” “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” and “Ella Fue.” Oftentimes the songs are performed by Rita herself, like Puerto Rican bolero “Preciosa,” originally written by Afro-Boricua composer Rafael Hernández. Hot take: Rita sings it better than Marc Anthony.
Perhaps one of the Rita Moreno documentary’s best qualities is its ability to tell the story of a Latina icon – and all that her journey to stardom represents for women and the Latinx community – without ever losing sight of her humanity. Interviews with Rita’s daughter Fernanda Gordon, home movies, and clips of Rita FaceTiming her grandson or setting up her own 87th birthday party (albeit in a colossal home) show a woman who is sensual, unfiltered, self-deprecating, and “a bit of a diva”, as One Day at a Time co-star Justina Machado fondly comments. But we just love Rita more for it: yes, she’s a Hollywood legend who undoubtedly enjoys the spotlight, but she’s also a woman, a mother, and a friend.
Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It hits theaters on June 18th–make sure to get your tickets and be ready to give a standing ovation, because this documentary deserves it.