Kirk E. Kelleykahn’s heartwarming documentary “A Star Without a Star: The Untold Juanita Moore Story” makes the case for Moore — the director’s grandmother and an Oscar nominee, whose work spans eight decades — to be recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Over 19 years in the making, Labor of Love includes insights and testimonials from actors like Sidney Poitier and Lewis Fletcher, who died before the film was completed. Despite a structure that briefly wanders into the later stages of the movie, Doc makes a very strong case for Moore’s contribution.
These days, films like “Hidden Figures” and “The Woman King” have widened the scope of screen roles available to black performers. But “a star without a star” captures a different Hollywood, Whereas parts for black female actors were largely limited to chorus girls and mammies. The film juxtaposes examples from Hollywood’s overtly racist past with the national mood of the day — civil rights protests in the 60s, including the March on Washington, Charlottesville and today’s TV coverage of the killing of George Floyd — slyly commenting on all the progress made since those early days, so many more. Something needs to be done.
Moore was a child when he moved with his family from the South to Los Angeles during the Great Migration after World War I. Inspired by a touring black performer called the Lafayette Players, he went to New York in the 1930s and joined a chorus. Girls of the Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1935, when he was 21, he moved to Europe to play the London Palladium and a stint at the Moulin Rouge. His high-kicking dances made him a sensation in Paris, and he considers his time there “a place where I felt like a man”.
Still, Moore misses his friends and family in the States. He returned to LA and danced at the Cotton Club in Culver City, mainly as a dancer, while landing unexpected bit parts in Hollywood. By 1937, he earned his SAG card, one of the first black actors to become a member of the guild. He studied at the Actors Lab in LA alongside James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, but in the late 40s the group was accused by Sen. Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee of having communist connections and forced to disband. This doc draws a link to the committee and policies of segregation, including a fanatical quote from gossip columnist and HUAC supporter Hedda Hopper.
Nevertheless, Moore continued to act. His big break came in the 1959 remake “Imitation of Life,” directed by Douglas Sirk, who cast him opposite Lana Turner as a domestic with a light-skinned girl who rejects him and tries to pass for white. Moore’s Annie shows a panoply of emotions that somehow settle into love. The film was Universal’s biggest blockbuster at the time and the role earned Moore an Oscar nomination. “His performance is very layered,” says Fletcher, who starred with Moore in 1988’s “Two Moon Junction.”
Moore thought the attention would bring more opportunities, but two years passed and the parts hadn’t changed. “There were other roles, but I wouldn’t take them for a while,” she says “Then I realized that nothing was going to happen, so I went back to the same old groove.” Her next two films featured her as a maid. Poitier, who called Moore’s ability “phenomenal,” put the humiliating act into perspective, noting that the actors “had to eat, they had to live, they had to live.”
Later, Moore became involved in community theater, co-founding the Cambridge Players in Los Angeles. One of their performances: “The Amen Corner,” for which his friend Marlon Brando had $75 to pay James Baldwin to write.
Moore, who died in 2014 at age 99, applied for induction into the Walk of Fame in 1998, and has been posthumously nominated every year since 2019. The doc notes that black talent comprises only 5% of the Walk’s current stars, and it includes an interview with an anonymous representative of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the Walk of Fame, setting the criteria for inclusion: not just fame, but one of the film credits. Strong list (here, Doc scrolls through his 70s, latest 2001) and involvement in the community.
Finally, the good news (not included in the film, but almost certainly resulting from it) is that Moore will receive her star next year, according to WABC-TV — a testament to “A Star Without a Star’s” perseverance, passion and motivation.