This is the first in a series of reviews from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival focused on films directed by women, which will be posted daily for the next six days. Get caught up on all the Sundance 2021 reviews here.
This year at the Sundance Film Festival, I was lucky to watch three biographical documentaries directed by women (and a fourth, My Name is Pauli Murray, which I review separately) that focus on the lives of cultural icons Rita Moreno, Alvin Ailey and Valerie Taylor, respectively.
All these luminaries were variously inspired and buoyed by their chosen professions, speaking in distinctive ways to the power of sticking to your convictions—even when detractors say you don’t belong.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
Most remarkable about the film is Rita Moreno’s self-reflection—especially when addressing the complexities of being a Hollywood actor who could pass as white, but was also frequently cast as “exotic” characters of wide-ranging ethnic origins nowhere near her own Latinx heritage.
Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera. Part of the American Masters series, this film will be released on PBS later this year.
Equal parts fun and earnest, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is a delightful and enlightening film exploring the life of acting legend Rita Moreno, famous for her roles in over 150 films and television shows, including Anita in West Side Story (1961) and, more recently, the scene-stealing grandmother Lydia in the reboot of sitcom One Day at a Time (2017-2020).
In the documentary, Moreno speaks joyously about her 70-year-plus career, and her stories and experiences are intercut artfully with clips from her films and shows and commentary from other Latinx show business greats, including Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who all speak cogently about how Moreno inspired them to pursue their own dreams.
Moreno recounts how, as a child, she and her mother left their home in Puerto Rico; she describes the experience as “like a reverse Oz,” in which the beauty and happiness of her childhood was replaced by growing up “in New York City learning and believing that I didn’t have much worth” due to her race, ethnicity and social class. But then, Moreno took up dancing and was soon supporting both her and her mother; in her teens, she was spotted by a talent scout and made the move to Hollywood.
Most remarkable about the film is Moreno’s self-reflection, especially when addressing the complexities of being a Hollywood actor who could pass as white but was also frequently cast as “exotic” characters of wide-ranging ethnic origins nowhere near her own Latinx heritage. Moreno laments how she was often cast in “native girl” roles and, “all of these characters were always treated as illiterate, immoral; they were always men’s little ‘island girls.’” In this, and other ways, the film offers Moreno’s experiences to highlight the limited roles for women of color in Hollywood then—and now—as well as the problematic understanding of racial difference perpetuated by a predominately white, male film industry.
The documentary also highlights Moreno’s activism around reproductive rights, civil rights, #MeToo and more throughout her career. Moreno frankly discusses how she was raped by her agent, and other ways she was harassed and mistreated by the men who were meant to support her in her career, as well as her tumultuous relationship with actor Marlon Brando, her abortion, and her attempted suicide.
Throughout the trials and self-doubt, however, Moreno’s strength shines through. After her performance in West Side Story, for which she won an Oscar, her acting opportunities began to broaden. With her incredibly prolific and diverse career, Moreno became the first Latina performer to become an EGOT winner (including two Emmys, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony).
An inspiring and irrepressible figure, Moreno’s speech at the Television Critics Awards, included towards the end of the film, really says it all—and it’s a truth Mariem Pérez Riera’s documentary beautifully helps realize. “You’d think that once you’d felt the warm glow of recognition, you wouldn’t fear the shadows anymore. You know what? A lot of us still do,” Moreno admits. “It’s interesting how we keep dragging our past into the present. I am so blessed. Damn the shadows and here’s to the light.”
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A lovely tribute demonstrating the extensive influence and incisive political possibilities of Alvin Ailey’s dance practice and enduring spirit.
Directed by Jamila Wignot. This film has been acquired for distribution by NEON.
A thoughtful and beautiful meditation on Black excellence, Ailey explores the life of dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded the famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 and was a ground-breaking innovator in the world of contemporary dance.
The documentary begins with footage of recently-passed actor Cicely Tyson presenting Ailey with a Kennedy Center Honors in 1988, a year before his death from AIDS-related illness—a prescient reminder of both iconic figures and the long-lasting effects of their legacies. In fact, interviewees in the film frequently emphasize how Ailey guided and inspired them, “helping [them] to push through.”
The highlights of the film include extensive archival footage of Ailey’s and his company’s dance performances over the years, alongside a new piece his dance company developed at the time of the film’s shooting—a lovely tribute demonstrating the extensive influence and incisive political possibilities of Ailey’s dance practice and enduring spirit.
Playing with Sharks
After an unintended consequences of Jaws’ success inspired fear and hatred of sharks, marine conservationist and life-long diver Valerie Taylor began a decades-long campaign to garner protected status for sharks.
Directed by Sally Aitken. This film has been acquired for distribution by National Geographic.
Most famously known for shooting the live shark footage for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), alongside her diver and underwater videographer husband Ron Taylor and their team, marine conservationist and life-long diver Valerie Taylor is a fascinating woman whom many of us outside of Australia likely have heard very little about.
Sally Aitken’s accomplished and enriching documentary illuminates Taylor’s life, sharing gorgeous remastered footage of Taylor’s early dives from the 1960s and 70s alongside interviews with well-known conservationists, divers, marine experts and Taylor herself.
While Taylor originally started diving as one of a handful of female spear fishers during a time when the sport was overwhelmingly male-dominated, her affirmative experiences of ocean life and with sharks, particularly, drew her towards conservation. Although there’s a bit too much emphasis from some of the interviewees on how Taylor made a literal and figurative splash early in her career as a “glamorous” contrast to the mostly male diving set, the film itself emphasizes Taylor’s principles and bravery over her appearance.
An especially compelling moment in the documentary comes with the unintended consequences of Jaws’ success, which inspired further fear of sharks and ran counter to the goals of Taylor and her team’s conservation efforts. Responding to what she felt was undeserved hatred and panic, as well as an uptick in the senseless slaughter of sharks, Taylor began a decades-long campaign to garner protected status for nurse sharks and great white sharks, among others, and to designate certain Australian waters as marine parks. Aitken’s film skillfully illustrates Taylor’s tenacity, her courage, and her deep appreciation for creatures that so many people unduly fear.
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