Arnett Moore holds of photo of his late aunt, actress Juanita Moore. He's determined to get Juanita a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Amanda Font/KQED)
Long before the current reckoning with the Golden Globe Awards and the push for more diverse representation in media, Black actors in Hollywood's golden age paved the way in an industry that gave them few options and, often, no credit. In her seven-decade stage and screen career, Juanita Moore made more than 80 film and television appearances.
Though she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the 1959 film, "Imitation of Life," she didn't reach the level of fame and recognition that might normally follow such a nomination. Her nephew, Arnett Moore, says her spotlight is long overdue.
From his home in the Oakland Hills, 75-year-old Arnett has launched a one-man campaign to get his late aunt a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce only picks one posthumous candidate each year to get a star. Applications are due by May 28, and this is the third year in a row Arnett has submitted Juanita for consideration.
“In the '50s when I was growing up, when you saw a Black person on the TV screen, you got excited. And Juanita was that face you saw again and again and again,” he says, "You might not know her name, but you knew that she was that person."
Juanita was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, one of seven sisters, and the youngest of nine children, though one of her brothers died in childhood. Her other brother was Arnett's father. Juanita's mother moved all the children to Los Angeles around 1921. Her brother, Juanita's uncle, was a sleeping car porter and was able to get train tickets for the family to come to California.
While attending Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, Juanita was part of the glee club, singing and dancing. A teacher saw her perform and suggested that she had the talent to pursue a career on stage. Arnett says she and a friend moved to New York City to do just that.
"She was a showgirl at 18 at Small's Paradise, at the (Cafe Zanzibar), at several venues throughout New York, during the Harlem Renaissance. This is in the thirties."
But soon after, says Arnett, Juanita headed to Europe, "Because Black entertainers weren't as well received in America as they were in Europe." She sang at the London Palladium, at the Moulin Rouge, and Arnett says she even had a chance to sing and dance with Josephine Baker, the entertainer and civil rights activist.
Juanita returned to California after the death of her mother, and it was then that she began to pursue acting. "She started out in, they called it, Black cinema or race movies," Arnett says. These were films made by Black filmmakers featuring primary Black casts for Black audiences. "But these were all movies that you aren't getting credit for, for being a Hollywood star yet."
Her first appearance in a mainstream movie came in the 1949 film, "Pinky," in which she had a few lines as a nurse. Many of the roles available to her were based on negative stereotypes, Arnett says.
“She once said she was from the boudoir to the jungle,” he says, “In other words, she played a maid to a savage. And that was her early career.” Those were the roles available to Black women at the time, says Arnett, but Juanita had her limits. "One thing she wouldn't do is play the mammy role or the buffoon roles. She would not do those, and those that did became very successful. But she refused to do those."
It wasn’t until 1959 that Juanita got her big break when she was cast in the drama, "Imitation of Life," alongside Lana Turner and Susan Kohner. Juanita plays Annie, a woman whose light-skinned daughter rejects her Black identity, to live her life passing as white.
"I remember that it was a very emotional picture," Arnett says, "I once was asked by a friend of mine who was older, 'Did you cry during Imitation of Life?' I said, 'No!' I didn't want him to think I cried. But yes," Arnett admits, laughing, "I cry even today. And I cried then."
During a 1995 interview with Turner Classic Movies, Juanita Moore remembered what the film’s producer, Ross Hunter, told her when she got the part: “'Juanita,' he said, 'I've put my neck out for you. If you’re no good, the picture is not gonna be any good.’"
“That was significant pressure,” Arnett says, “Because really that was her coming out too. She had been in movies prior to that, playing small parts and some uncredited parts. But this was her opportunity to bust out at 44-years-old.”
The film was a success and Juanita received an Academy Awards nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She became the fifth Black actor ever to be nominated for an Oscar. Although she didn’t win, Juanita hoped she would get cast in more leading roles. But the offers never came. She didn’t work for a year after that.
“I didn't want to carry the trays anymore,” recalled Juanita during the 1995 interview. “I knew that was the only kind of job that I was going to get. I knew that, but I did not want to do that. So I don't know if being nominated helped me or not.”
But true to her passion, Juanita never quit acting. She went on to perform in mostly small roles. Her last role was in 2000, as a grandmother in Disney’s "The Kid" with Bruce Willis.
She died just before New Year's Day 2014, at the age of 99.
Arnett says his aunt never talked much about her career when he was a kid growing up in LA.
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He’s had to uncover much of her professional history himself after her death, including digging up hundreds of photos. A three-inch-thick binder holds much of the information he's found about his aunt, and many family photos too. Framed portraits of her sit in his living room. His affection and admiration for her is clear.
“I'm very proud of her,” he says, “She had a lot of obstacles, the biggest one being racism … she's a star without a star.”
Arnett recalls a conversation he had with Juanita just a few months before her death.
"I said, Nita, do you want a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? And she says, 'If you think I deserve one, baby.' From that point on, I did everything I could to look and research and see how she could earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame."
Arnett says he's mostly optimistic. If Juanita isn't selected this time around, he says he'll keep trying until she gets her star.