Trailblazing Actress Juanita Moore Dies but Her Legacy Needs to Live On
Sad news to start 2014. Actress Juanita Moore died Tuesday of natural causes. According to her step-grandson, actor Kirk Kelleykahn, she was 99-years-old. Moore was most famous for being the fifth African American to be nominated for an Oscar and the third African American woman to be nominated for the Supporting Actress category for her role in Imitation of Life. But Moore's career is more than just awards, she also exemplifies the gains made for entertainers of color in the confusing, tumultuous Civil Rights era, and she remained both a trailblazer and a supporter for young actors and actresses of color until her death.
Read through Juanita Moore's early roles on IMDb and you'll find a host of offensive characters (in movies in which she was often uncredited): "Tribal Woman," "Powder Room Attendant," "Maid," "Negress — Mental Patient." But after those roles, things began to change. With cases like Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights activists like Rosa Parks, German director Douglas Sirk thought it was the right time to look at issues of race and identity in a remake of Imitation of Life, which was released in 1959.
Of course, the film is still very much of its era. Moore's character, Annie, is a saintly, Mammy-like character, and the predictable romantic plot featuring Lana Turner and her daughter is given more screen time than the more interesting struggle of identity with Annie's daughter, a young black woman who can pass for white. But the little things the film did gave it some merit: It made America confront its issues with race, and it gave talented actresses like Moore an opportunity to do something more than just play subservient bit parts on screen.
Whether it was the Oscar nomination or the changing times, Moore finally began to receive the respect she deserved as an actress — she never had another uncredited role, and the characters she played had actual names instead of stereotypes or job titles. Moore continued to take roles in films like The Singing Nun and television shows like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. She slowed down in the '80s, but continued to appear in a few film roles and television guest spots.
And she never gave up the fighting spirit that helped her thrive during such a difficult time for black women in Hollywood — according to Kirk Kelleykahn in an interview with Variety, she continued to encourage people in the community to live up to their potential. “Wherever we went she stopped and told black boys and girls they could do anything with their lives,” Kelleykahn said.
Hopefully, Moore inspired a slew of young black actors and actresses to fight for roles in a Hollywood that's still reluctant to give them any. She may be gone, but fight against racism in the media rages on.