On the eve of the upcoming Academy Awards (Oscar) ceremony, we often reminisce on some of the more memorable moments that have stood the test of time and continue to resonate throughout pop culture. One of those moments was none other than the historic win for Halle Berry, 55. On March 24, 2002, exactly 20 years ago, Berry made history by becoming the first black woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Actress [in a Leading Role] for her portrayal of Leticia Musgrove in the independent film, Monster’s Ball. During her very emotional acceptance speech, Berry noted the significance of the moment saying, “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
In this press room interview post-ceremony, acquired by Entertainment Tonight, the X-Men star spoke further about the momentous occasion and what it means for actresses of color adding, “This moment although I’m standing here, I meant it, it’s really not just about me. You know it’s about so many people that went before me, that paved the way, and people who are fighting alongside with me and the ones that will come along, whose path will be indelibly easier because of everyone so it’s not really about me as much as it’s about so many other women of color who have tried to permeate this system for so many years and today this meant hope. That glass ceiling was broken wide open and that just feels good. For me and for all of them too.”
Unfortunately, that hope Halle spoke of hasn’t exactly come true in the way that she’d like as of this writing, she is still the first and only black woman to win the award. During a Q&A with AARP, Berry gave this transparent answer when asked if progress has been made since her win 20 years ago, “Definitely. When I won the Oscar 20 years ago, I didn’t see nearly as many faces of color in TV and film as I do now. There has been a 100 percent change. So while no other Black woman stands next to me [with a best actress Oscar] and it’s heartbreaking and I wish there were more, I also know that moment at the Oscars was inspiring and made people believe that anything was possible. Today you’ve got Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, Viola Davis. I can go on and on. Women of color are doing things, and you know what? They’re doing things on their own terms, in their way. They’re daring to say, I deserve this. And I say to them, everybody loves an award. We all love when our industry says, you did a great job. But most people will never win an Academy Award or an Olympic gold medal or an MMA championship belt. That doesn’t mean the fight’s not worth it. It doesn’t mean you’re not winning. You’re working in ways you’d never dreamed of before and on projects that are reflective of you or your culture or your gender.”
Having moved past being just a leading lady, Halle has now added director to her resume, releasing her directorial debut, Bruised in November 2021. Berry not only directed the film, but she also produced and starred in it as well.
Abron’s Hot Take
It would be easy to blame this issue squarely on the Academy members and say that the fault rests squarely on their shoulders. One could argue that perhaps the voting members don’t find black actresses worthy enough to win this particular award but that would be intellectually dishonest if not a bit childish. Let’s look at this from a more nuanced perspective. The Academy simply votes based on performances. It is the responsibility of the movie studios and casting directors to hire actors and actresses in these leading roles that will put them on the Academy’s radar to be considered for an award nomination. Halle speaks to that in this interview at the Maker’s Conference in 2017.
So, it’s simple. If black actresses are being hired for strong, leading roles, at the same rate as their white counterparts, they stand a chance to be recognized by the Academy with an award nomination and perhaps even a win. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, even in 2022, there are still practices of biased casting that affect many actors of color, particularly women. Stories that should be universal are often told from a particular viewpoint and through a particular lens, which doesn’t always include different ethnic groups. It’s not enough to sprinkle a few individuals in for diversity purposes. One has to truly believe in the natural and normal makeup of society that is inclusive.
But this can’t be done alone. As with any fight to improve a system that disproportionally affects a group of people, allies are a necessity. That’s where the Academy comes in. Although they can’t force studios to hire black actresses just so they can vote for them for an award, perhaps they can express a stronger interest in wanting to see a full and diverse list of film performances throughout the year – to perhaps entice studios to be mindful of their casting practices – ensuring that every actor has a fair chance to be seen. Movie executives and agents can also take part in the cause – insisting that their clients across all genders and races are given a fair shot to audition for some of the biggest roles of the year – guaranteed to get awards buzz.
As it stands currently, there seems to be a once-in-a-decade opportunity for a black actress to land a leading role that garners her rave reviews and award recognition. However, things are slowly improving but that is mostly due to those same actresses who have decided not to wait on Hollywood and have instead taken hold of their careers. Now more than ever, we’re seeing more films produced and even directed by women of color. More opportunities are presenting themselves, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. In the meantime, I will enjoy the new wave of excellence and #blackgirlmagic that’s permeating the entertainment industry. Even if black actresses aren’t winning awards for leading roles, they sure as hell are winning at life in their LEAD-ership positions as producers, writers, and directors.
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