Kaycee Moore, an unsung powerhouse of the L.A. Rebellion
Despite a small number of roles, she made a lasting impact in ‘Killer of Sheep’ and ‘Daughters of the Dust’
The performer Kaycee Moore died on Aug. 13 at the age of 77. During a 14-year span, Moore appeared in three masterworks of the L.A. Rebellion era, emerging as perhaps the most powerful — if ultimately under-recognized — lead actor of the Black American filmmaking movement spanning from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.
The paucity of opportunities afforded to Black actresses by the film industry during Moore’s peak period and her own unwillingness to audition and act unless summoned have resulted in a filmography of just five credits. But the brevity of Moore’s resume should by no means minimize her enormous artistry.
Born Kaycee Collier in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1944, Moore got married as a teenager in 1959 and raised two children with her first husband. In the early 1970s, she moved to Los Angeles and took a job with the makeup line Max Factor. Unsettled by life in that metropolis, Moore gravitated to acting as a therapeutic practice, finding work in student films and local theater that challenged and nourished her. During this time, she crossed paths with a UCLA film student named Charles Burnett, then an aspiring writer and director the same age as Moore. Burnett cast the nonprofessional actress in his now-canonical thesis project, Killer of Sheep (1978), a neorealist drama centered on Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a working-class man in the Watts area of LA demoralized by his job in a slaughterhouse and withdrawn from his adoring family.
Though she mostly resides in the shadows of the film, Moore is unforgettable as Stan’s nameless wife in Killer of Sheep. With searching eyes and a yearning frame, the actress conjures a haunting aura of marital sorrow that pulses through each unvarnished moment in Burnett’s classic. Evoking a profound need in body and gesture alone, Moore shows us the emotional toll of a love that regularly breaks and neglects her heart. In the film’s most memorable scene, Moore slow dances with Sanders to a Dinah Washington song as the wound between husband and wife is sutured and reopened once again. The music may set the mood, but it is Moore, with her caressing hands and enveloping arms, who communicates the pained sadness that lingers in the air.
More than a decade later, Moore stood out again, not as a lovelorn wife but as a fearsome matriarch. The actress is a scowling, hypercritical figure in director Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), playing an iron-willed member of the Peazant family who’s fiercely determined to keep her loved ones together as they prepare for their migration north.
But it’s director Billy Woodberry’s feature debut and thesis project, Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), that contains her crowning achievement. Moore is fantastic as the aggrieved, overworked and betrayed Andais, a role written for her by Burnett. The centerpiece of this performance — and Woodberry’s film — is a devastating dialogue between Moore’s character and her chronically unfaithful and unemployed husband, Charlie, played by Nate Hardman, who previously acted opposite Moore in a theatrical production at USC. It’s a marital quarrel that lasts for 10 excruciating minutes and is captured with a single, unbroken take.
The paucity of opportunities afforded to Black actresses by the film industry during Moore’s peak period and her own unwillingness to audition and act unless summoned have resulted in a filmography of just five credits.
Woodberry provided Moore and Hardman with a loose outline of the scene, detailing where the characters were at this point in the script and what each knew about the other, leaving it up to his actors to improvise the dialogue. (Moore, a gifted improviser, had previously ad-libbed a memorable scene in Killer of Sheep in which she laces into two of Henry’s felonious friends.) The final scene included in the film was the second of just two takes, the first having come to an abrupt end after Hardman resorted to violence, angering Moore and requiring Woodberry’s intervention. What ensues is a master class in screen acting that is as ambitious and electrifying as anything in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Scenes from a Marriage (1973) or A Woman Under the Influence (1974). This is a testament to the talents of Hardman and especially Moore, who carries this scene with an uninhibited expressivity.
Moore’s stamina, commitment and virtuosity are on full display during this scene, but so is her unceasing solidarity with her character. At one point, Moore holds out her hands to Hardman and begs him to feel the ache as her entire body trembles with alarming intensity. The character’s hands are, as the writer Samantha N. Sheppard notes, “a symbol of how hard [she] has worked.”
Due to the spontaneous nature of this scene, Moore may have been responsible for not just enacting but conceiving such a loaded gesture. In doing so, she makes the often invisible and thus devalued labor of the Black female provider not simply visible and tactile but palpable. Later in the scene, Andais stands at her kitchen sink, face streaked with tears and defeat, and looks into her husband’s eyes as she tells him, “Now, I don’t know what’s wrong with everybody. But now you know what’s wrong with me.” There is no consolation or catharsis in Moore’s performance here: enervated as she sits stooped over, her words having failed her, Andais finds little relief, only deeper uncertainty.
Moore’s stamina, commitment and virtuosity are on full display during this scene, but so is her unceasing solidarity with her character.
Moore never officially retired from cinema, but she moved back to Kansas City in 1984 to help her mother run the local chapter of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, which her mother founded in 1976. (The inherited disease had claimed the lives of two of Moore’s brothers.) Moore went on to serve as the chapter’s executive director for 14 years, raising money for research and establishing testing for all infants born in the state.
She returned to acting sporadically, appearing in Daughters of the Dust at Dash’s behest and as the mentally ill mother of a Vietnam casualty in the black-and-white indie Ninth Street (1999), opposite Martin Sheen. Filmed in Kansas City, Ninth Street would mark Moore’s last screen appearance. Like so many Black actresses throughout the 20th century, the actress was denied roles and a sustained career by an unimaginative industry, whose white gatekeepers were willfully blind to the genius of Moore and her versatile colleagues.
“Kaycee Moore was one of the most exceptional and unsung actresses I’ve ever worked with,” Burnett wrote on Twitter following the news of Moore’s death. “Based on her undeniable talent, she deserved far more opportunities than she was afforded.”
Until her death, Moore was surrounded by her two children, four siblings, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, all of whom have survived her; the cause and details of her death have not been disclosed. According to Sheppard, the big screen was never far from Moore’s mind: Later in life, she was working on an original screenplay, a historical drama set in her hometown, that she hoped Clint Eastwood would direct and act in.
But it is in front of the camera where Moore made film history. In her moments of raw-nerved honesty, Moore reminds us that an actor’s work needn’t be relegated to simply playing a role. For this unacknowledged powerhouse, to act was to passionately advocate for her characters — in this case, channeling the rage and desolation of a single person with a titanic talent that speaks to so many. The grief of Stan’s wife is as distinct from the cool decisiveness of Daughters of the Dust’s Haagar Peazant as it is from the hard-fought defiance of Andais. What unites these women is Kaycee Moore, whose brilliance ensures that their embattled lives will be known and remembered.