MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Today, we wrap up our week-long series Divas on Screen with a focus on leading movie star and Academy Award winner, Halle Berry. With us is scholar and film critic Mia Mask. She tells us about some of Berrys most memorable performances.
MIA MASK: In 2001, Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in "Monsters Ball" directed by Marc Forster. She was 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.
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. HALLE BERRY (Actor): This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Vivica Fox. And its for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because the door tonight has been opened.
(Soundbite of cheering)
MASK: In "Monsters Ball," she portrays a widow who takes up with the bigoted, white prison guard responsible for overseeing her husbands execution detail.
(Soundbite of movie, "Monsters Ball")
Mr. PETER BOYLE (Actor): (as Buck Grotowski) You just walked in my house.
Ms. BERRY: (as Leticia Musgrove) My bad. I thought...
Mr. BOYLE: (as Buck Grotowski) Hank? You looking for Hank?
Ms. BERRY: (as Leticia Musgrove) Yes. Is he here?
Mr. BOYLE: (as Buck Grotowski) Who are you?
Ms. BERRY: (as Leticia Musgrove) My name is Leticia Musgrove, and me and Hank is - friends.
MASK: Some spectators believe Berry won for a film with offensive racial politics. For many other viewers, however, it was a momentous occasion to see a black woman finally win this award.
Ms. BERRY: It does feel very historic, especially with everybody talking about it. And thats why Im so proud, you know, to be a part of it this year. And also, you know, its also in my thoughts that I hope one day, Ill see the day in my lifetime, when it wont be such a big deal, you know, have to distinguish between black and white and, you know, if its an historic event or not, I hope I get to see that.
MASK: Halle Berry is the product of an interracial marriage. Her mother is Caucasian 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 first film role was in Spike Lees "Jungle Fever" portraying Vivian, the drug-addicted girlfriend of Samuel L. Jacksons 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.
Berrys encore presentation was as Khaila Richards in the family melodrama "Losing Isaiah" along 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 out hes been adopted by a white social worker.
(Soundbite of movie, "Losing Isaiah")
Ms. BERRY: (as Khaila Richards) Oh, so youre calling me an animal? If you think youre just gonna walk up in this court and take my baby like you take some puppy from a pound, you got another thing coming, lady, 'cause you aint gonna take my baby from me.
MASK: After "Losing Isaiah," Berry portrayed Nina in Warren Beattys political campaign farce, "Bulworth."
(Soundbite of movie, "Bulworth")
Ms. BERRY: (as Nina) The fact is, Im just a materialist at heart. But if I look at the economic base, higher domestic employment means jobs for African-Americans. World War II meant lots of jobs for black folks. That is what energized the community for the civil rights movement of the '50s and the 60s. An energized, hopeful community will not only produce leaders but more importantly, itll produce leaders theyll respond to. Now what do you think, senator?
MASK: 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 Dandridges life and abbreviated career.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge")
Ms. BERRY: (as Dorothy Dandridge) Go ahead, Earl, make jokes. Tonight, Ill take my bows and exit stage rear, go through the kitchen, past the casino, around the pool, which Im apparently too dirty to swim in, up the service elevator, into my luxurious penthouse suite, sip my complimentary champagne, and pee in a brand new Dixie cup.
Mr. BRENT SPINER (Actor): (as Earl Mills) I take that walk with you every night, you know.
Ms. BERRY: (as Dorothy Dandridge) But the difference is, Earl, you dont have to.
MASK: She deserves credit for creating a role through which the world can remember the struggles, the successes and the heartbreak of Dorothy Dandridge, with whom Berry is now permanently linked. Berry is both a biracial beauty in an integrated era and a performer who has demonstrated her ability across a range of characters. 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 Berrys career. Fifty years is too long to wait for an Oscar. Its too long to wait for a dream deferred.
(Soundbite of song, "I Got Rhythm")
Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) Ive got starlight, Ive got sweet dreams. Ive got my man, who could ask for anything more?
MARTIN: Mia Mask is an associate professor of film at Vassar College. She is the author of "Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film." To read more about Halle Berry and see video clips from her films, "Bulworth" and "Losing Isaiah," please go to the program page of npr.org and select TELL ME MORE. And dont forget, the Oscars are this Sunday evening. Who knows, maybe the Academy will crown yet another diva.
The Barbershop guys are next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.