Remember when Halle Berry won the Oscar for Monster’s Ball? Remember not thinking anyone black would win that year, not due to lack of talent but lack of recognition? I was elated when both Halle and Denzel won. All I could do was beam because I had witnessed this historic moment.
As I and the rest of Black America reveled in this moment, it was clear that not everyone was pleased with the role that led to this win. For example, Angela Basset is quoted in a People magazine article in June 2002 explaining why she along with Vanessa Williams passed on that role:
“It’s the character, darling. I wasn’t going to prostitute on film. I couldn’t do that because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality… It’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.“
The article goes on to say: Bassett insists that she is not criticizing Berry so much as she is criticizing the Hollywood system for continuing to typecast black women in demeaning roles.
We live in a world where both Basset’s critique of Hollywood and Berry’s right to play the role are necessary. These women are in the same profession, of the same ethnicity, jumping the same professional hurdles such as racism and sexism with varying opinions on the rules of the game. Do I think that Angela’s quote is accurate? Yes, to an extent. But what if Halle still looks back on this work and smiles and remembers it was her boldness that granted her an Oscar?
As black women we sometimes have this cognitive dissonance with our womanhood because of our need to push back against stereotypes. We know what we possess, but flaunting it becomes problematic because somebody says so. In case of Halle and her screen self, Leticia, the movie is based on a woman trying to grapple with her life and takes comfort in a man she probably shouldn’t have trusted with her kitchen floor, let alone handle her body. Honestly, what woman hasn’t done that? I can say with all transparency I have, and that doesn’t and didn’t make me anything but human and lonely. The power of her owning that, is what made her performance so powerful.
We have to give ourselves the space to own all aspects of our womanhood rather than policing what is and is not okay, the latter can be toxic. The point of the movie wasn’t her and Billy Bob Thornton’s sex scene, but because it was Halle Berry that changes the whole dynamic of the role and purpose of the movie? Halle Berry did something daring that white actresses do all the time ie Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, but because she exists as a black woman she is held to a standard of impossible chaste.
That being said, I would be remiss not to touch on the objectification of black women throughout colonialism, slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. The pervasive history of objectification and stereotypes of black woman are the exact reason why we choose to hold ourselves to what is defined as a higher standard of womanhood. We have been taught to be sage and pretty, chased and chaste, but never be seen as ‘too much’ of any one thing.
Having the grandmother I did, I was always aware of plants and trees, and how essential shade can be. However, it can be devastating—it can block out the same thing the surrounding greenery needs: light. The shade is comfortable, but that does not make it beneficial. There is no benefit in critiquing a standard that you despise when thrusted upon on you. Let’s not imprison each other with restrictions that were never created by us to begin with. Lauryn Hill and Cardi B broke the same record. Viola has been awarded far playing the role of a mistress as well as the victim of infidelity. There is more power in each of us defining and celebrating how we will portray ourselves than ignoring the varying essences and realities of our womanhood.
Jennifer P. Harris | Write to Live Team