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Actress Holly Berry receives an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the film Monster's Ball in 2001.
Actress Holly Berry receives an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the film Monster's Ball in 2001. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
In 2001, Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Monster's Ball, directed by Marc Forster. The award made her the first African-American woman to win an Oscar in this category. Dorothy Dandridge was the first black woman to be nominated for this Oscar — 50 years earlier.
Some spectators believe Berry won for a film with questionable racial politics. In Monster's Ball, she portrays a widow who takes up with the bigoted, white prison guard responsible for overseeing her husband's execution detail. For many other viewers, however, it was momentous to see a black woman finally win this award.
Rather than speculate about the politics of an Oscar for Monster's Ball, it's important to focus on Berry's larger accomplishment: namely, fulfilling Dorothy Dandridge's legacy.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Berry is the product of an interracial marriage. Her mother is white and her father is African-American. She grew up in Cleveland with her mother and sister. Like Pam Grier, Berry began her public career as a beauty pageant contestant and model. Her screen debut occurred when she landed a role on the ABC sitcom Living Dolls.
Years later, she referred to herself as the "token Negro" on a show where the writers struggled to write dialogue for black characters.
Her first film role was in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever portraying Vivian, the drug-addicted girlfriend of Samuel L. Jackson's character, Gator. In the movie, she delivered a compelling performance. Many people barely recognize Berry playing Vivian or remember she acted in Jungle Fever because the role is atypically unglamorous when compared to her other screen appearances.
Her next major role was in the black romantic comedy Boomerang. Opposite Eddie Murphy, the film solidified her innocent, girl-next-door image. It also situated her within a young black urban professional community. The film created a world that Eddie Murphy and director Reginald Hudlin felt was sorely missing from Hollywood films.
Berry's next big role was as Khaila Richards in the family melodrama Losing Isaiah with co-stars Jessica Lange and Samuel L. Jackson. Once again, Berry turned out a subtle, measured performance, this time playing the drug-addicted mother who cleans up to regain custody of her son only to find he's been adopted by a white social worker.
After Losing Isiah, Berry portrayed Nina in Warren Beatty's political campaign farce, Bulworth.
In the 1994 film Losing Isaiah, Halle Berry plays a reformed drug addict, Khaila, who fights to regain custody of her child from a white social worker, Margaret, played by Jessica Lange.
All of these films steadily advanced her career. But Halle Berry made a strategic career move when she decided to executive-produce the story of Dorothy Dandridge's life and abbreviated career.
She deserves credit for creating a vehicle through which the world can remember the struggles, the successes and the heartbreak of Dorothy Dandridge — with whom Berry is now permanently linked.
In the political comedy Bulworth (1998), Berry stars as Nina, who is hired to assassinate Warren Beatty's character, Sen. Jay Bulworth.
Berry is both a bi-racial beauty in an integrated era and a performer who has demonstrated her ability across a range of characters. Whereas Dandridge — who also possessed sexual charisma — was the right actress at the wrong time, Berry is the right actress at the right multicultural moment.
We have made progress in American society and in film. We have moved from the era of the tragic mulatta, when films like Pinky, Imitation of Life and Band of Angels were cast with white actresses, to the era of the biracial beauty, in which blockbusters like Die Another Day or literary adaptations such as Their Eyes Were Watching God can finally star black and brown African-American identified women. Many hope that in the multicultural new millennium black women, and women of color in general, will have the kind of access to opportunity we see in Halle Berry's career.
Fifty years is too long to wait for an Oscar. It's too long to wait for a dream deferred.
Mia Mask is an associate professor of film at Vassar College. She is the author of Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film. She has written film reviews and covered festivals for IndieWire.com, The Village Voice, Film Quarterly, Time Out New York and The Poughkeepsie Journal. Her criticism was anthologized in Best American Movie Writing.