The screen behind Russell Crowe shows a mosaic of their faces: Sissy Spacek, Renee Zellweger, Judy Dench, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry. It’s 2002 and they’re all at the 74th Academy Awards in Hollywood, and probably nobody realizes that history is about to be made. And when it is made, when Crowe opens the envelope and announces that Halle Berry has just won the Oscar for Best Actress, when she begins to register the gravity of the situation, her face opens out, her eyes well up, and all she can say is, “Oh, my god.”
Oh, my god. She says it at least eight or nine times, repeats it to herself, then to the others around her. Oh, my god, she says, and it’s clear that she really can’t believe what is happening, because what is happening is that Halle Berry has just become the first Black woman — like, ever — to win the Oscar for Best Actress. “This moment is so much bigger than me,” she says when she finally reaches the stage, fighting back tears and apologizing and whispering oh, my god a few more times.
“This moment is for Dorothy Dandrige, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door, tonight, has been opened.”
Who would have known that she would be wrong? Who would have known that, in the 18 years since that moment, it has never again happened? Certainly not Berry. She was hopeful. And as the actress, who is now 54 years old, prepares to premiere her directorial debut, “Bruised,” at TIFF 2020, she is feeling a pang of nostalgia looking back on that moment, which she now considers to be “one of [her] biggest heartbreaks.”
“The morning after, I thought, ‘Wow, I was chosen to open a door,’” she told Variety. “And then, to have no one … I question, ‘Was that an important moment, or was it just an important moment for me?’ I wanted to believe it was so much bigger than me. It felt so much bigger than me, mainly because I knew others should have been there before me and they weren’t.”
Sure, she said, it was historic. But did it really lead to any material change? Berry conceded how glad she is that women now feel more confident in telling their own stories, and that there is much more space available for them to do that than there was, at one point. But she also acknowledged her frustrations with how little had happened since that win.
In fact, the Oscar she won that year, for “Monster’s Ball,” was the peak of her career. Nothing came after. The big directors she expected would call never called. Her next big movie, “Catwoman,” failed extravagantly, and she struggled to secure roles afterward. “Just because I won an award doesn’t mean that, magically, the next day, there was a place for me,” she said. “I was just continuing to forge a way out of no way.”
This isn’t the first time she’s lamented that her win back in 2002 didn’t live up to the change she’d hoped it would bring. “That moment really meant nothing,” she told former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth in 2017. “It meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing.”
It might not have meant what she thought it did, but it did inspire her “to get involved in other ways, which is why I want to start directing, I want to start producing more. I want to start being a part of making more opportunities for people of colour.”
Change is coming slowly. Just this week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a set of reforms to the Best Picture category, which is intended to make diversity and equitable representation — on screen and off — a definitive priority.
“The aperture must widen to reflect our diverse global population in both the creation of motion pictures and in the audiences who connect with them,” Academy president David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson said in a joint written statement. “We believe these inclusion standards will be a catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry.”
As for Berry, she’s still fighting for herself. And in the upcoming “Bruised,” which premieres this week in Toronto and which Berry also stars, she is quite literally still fighting: she plays a disgraced MMA fighter who returns to the cage after everyone has decided her career is over.
She cracked two ribs shooting the big fight scene for the movie, after taking a knee to the chest from her co-star. “I didn’t want to stop because I had prepared for so long,” she told Variety. As a Black woman, she was acutely aware of how unique this opportunity was, how slim the odds are for Black women to get the chance to direct movies, especially at this level.
“My mind, my director’s mind, was just — keep going,” she said. “And I compartmentalized that, and I just kept going: ‘I’m not going to stop. I’ve come too far. I’m going to act as if this isn’t hurting. I’m going to will myself through it.’ And so we did.”
Maybe I’m projecting, but when I think about what this movie is about, when I consider the story of a Black woman who was counted out by everyone around her but who, without fail, continues to get back up and keep on fighting, it sounds less like fiction and more like Berry’s life.
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