By Gary Zavoral | Special to the Observer
Arnett Moore Hopes Family History Research Will Help Right a Wrong for Pioneering African American Actress
What started out as a quest at the Oakland FamilySearch Library to learn more about his aunt’s career in show business has now become a passion for Arnett Moore to bring to light the slights made by Hollywood to Black American actors. This month he hopes to correct one of those snubs: Get his aunt, Academy Award-nominated actress Juanita Moore, a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Moore revealed his plans in a presentation titled “Hollywood in Black and White and Color” during the 2020-21 Family History Seminar of the Greater Sacramento African American Genealogy Society, which was held last month as an online event instead of at its usual home of the Sacramento FamilySearch Library at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In his 45-minute presentation, Moore detailed the history of Blacks in U.S. entertainment from even before the Civil War, and specifically highlighting the glory days of Hollywood of the late-1930s to 1970s, when Juanita Moore was one of the Black actress pioneers. During his research, he discovered that her career typified how Black Americans endured negative portrayals and were often “minimized, forgotten, unappreciated and simply ignored.”
“I feel her story is important since it is reflective of what Black entertainers experienced during the 20th century and the treatment of actors of color that still exists today,” said Moore, who is also writing a book on the subject.
He needed to do a lot of research because, as he says, Ms. Moore “never talked about her career in show business. I learned so much after she passed (at age 98 on Dec. 31, 2013).”
He did the majority of his research at what used to be known as the Family History Library at Oakland Temple Hill, and first worked with research assistant Electra Price, who also helped Alex Haley do research for the groundbreaking miniseries, “Roots.”
Career Spans Several Decades
Through this research, Moore learned that Ms. Moore started her entertainment career after a teacher suggested she should become a stage performer. At 16 or 17 years old, she ran away to New York and appeared as a singer and dancer at top nightclubs like the Cotton Club.
Then in 1937 she went to Paris, where Black performers such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson were more appreciated. With the start of World War II, she came back to the United States and started her career in and around Hollywood.
“She appeared in race movies in the ‘30s and ‘40s before moving to Hollywood films. She appeared in 84 or 85 movies altogether, a number of TV shows, and she did a lot of commercials,” Moore said, wrapping up her career. “She also appeared in 30 or 40 ‘soundies,’ which were the first music videos.” During the presentation, he showed two of them: Louis Armstrong’s “Shine” and the Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll.”
Ms. Moore’s first Hollywood break was in the 1949 movie “Pinky,” in which she played a nurse. During the next decade, though, she was trapped in stereotypical Black roles.
“She would say she could only get parts from ‘the boudoir to the jungle’; in other words, from a maid to a savage,” Moore said. “But she refused to play those stereotypical buffoon, Stepin Fetchit-type parts.”
She Makes Audiences Weep in Breakout Role
The portrayal that got her the Oscar nomination was in the 1959 classic “Imitation of Life” as a Black housekeeper whose daughter passes for a White woman. The movie is considered one of Hollywood’s great tearjerkers, thanks mostly to Ms. Moore’s performance. She became just the fifth African American to be nominated for an Academy Award and the third to get a Best Supporting Actress nod.
Sam Staggs, who wrote a book on “Imitation of Life,” told the New York Times that people came in droves to watch the movie and weep in the dark.
“There are many, many people alive today who remember crying at her performance,” Staggs said in Ms. Moore’s obituary, “but who could not tell you her name.”
That’s because, unlike most Oscar nominees, her star didn’t rise and major roles didn’t immediately follow. Some movie historians say it was the racism of the time that kept her from getting more roles and meatier ones, and it would be a decade more before Black actresses would be considered for major roles.
“The Oscar prestige was fine, but I worked more before I was nominated,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1967. “Casting directors think an Oscar nominee is suddenly in another category. They couldn’t possibly ask you to do one or two days’ work.”
However, while being uncredited in many of her earlier movies – another slight for many Black actors – her name was prominent in a number of movies in the 1960s and 1970s. These include “Walk on the Wild Side,” “The Singing Nun,” “Uptight” and, in 1988, “Two Moon Junction.” Her final Hollywood role was in 2000 in “Disney’s The Kid” as Kenny’s grandmother.
With such a long and decorated career, Moore always wondered why Ms. Moore didn’t have her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he asked her a year or so before she died. She told him, “If you think I deserve one, baby.”
“I became determined right then to find out how Juanita could get a star,” he said.
The Walk of Fame selection committee chooses only one posthumous nominee to receive a star each year, and the first time Ms. Moore was able to be nominated was in 2019. She was first passed over for soul singer Jackie Wilson, and in 2000 for Andy Kaufman, the comedian who starred in the TV comedy “Taxi” and whose life was immortalized by Jim Carrey in the movie “Man on the Moon.”
“I think that movie helped Kaufman get his star,” Moore said.
This year, he hopes that the third time’s the charm, and that all his research and hard work will help Ms. Moore receive her award. This year’s nomination period begins this month and is planned to be announced in June.
For more on the Sacramento FamilySearch Library, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Sacramento_FamilySearch_Library.