For many actors, the pinnacle of their careers is reached upon receiving one of many prestigious awards offered by lauded arts organizations, including the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Broadway League, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To be honored in front of their peers for their artistry and socio-cultural contributions to film, television, theatre is the underlying pulse that motivates their work. However, the enduring practicality of these organizations, some of which nearly centuries old, in their capacity to successfully acknowledge the exceptional talent and artistry of working actors must continuously be re-examined.
Who do we endow with the responsibility of assessing the intrinsic value and merit of art – and artists, by extension? And who do these people truly speak for?
Since its inception in 1928, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has only awarded one Black woman with the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In 2002, Halle Berry received this award for her polarizing performance as Leticia Musgrove in the otherwise forgettable film Monster’s Ball. To this day, she remains not only the sole Black woman to have been awarded with this prestigious honor, but also the only woman of color – every other former recipient is white. While this is largely an indictment on AMPAS and its inability, failure, and/or refusal to acknowledge the indescribable, transcendent talents of white and nonwhite actors alike – begging the question of whether these honorifics are truly as valuable as they are suggested to be – the more pivotal question is why this film in particular inspired such a breakthrough. What is it about Monster’s Ball that is so noteworthy, profound, or transformative that it allowed Halle Berry to provoke this (albeit limited) change more than 70 years after AMPAS’ founding? The answer remains unclear.
Monster’s Ball aspires to be a sophisticated commentary on the convoluted intersection of race and class, particularly the impact of the penal system on employees, inmates, and families alike. However, in effect the film represents a shallow, myopic examination of race relations; one that is submerged in delusions of romance. In Monster’s Ball, the interrogation of racial conflict – and more importantly, racism – is shrouded by this crusade for the individual redemption of the film’s male protagonist, Hank Grotowski.
Hank, a white corrections officer at a Georgia prison, is, by definition, a racist. But the manner in which the film depicts his racism is far too sympathetic, positioning it as a reluctant response as opposed to a deliberate choice. For instance, when Hank’s father, Buck, expresses his disgust towards modern racial integration, Hank neither agrees nor condemns Buck for this bigotry. In fact, he seems ambivalent; while he may not agree with this assessment, Hank chooses not to lambaste his father, perhaps due to some subconscious sense of filial piety. Another example of Hank’s racism appears when he gets into a physical altercation with his son, who Hank blames for “ruining” an inmate’s last walk before his execution. When a fellow police officer intervenes to break up the fight, Hank hurls racist insults towards him (“Get your fuckin’ hands off me, you fuckin’ n—–r!”).
While these situations are both examples of microaggressive and explicit racism, they are depicted as responses. Hank is never portrayed as engaging in racism due to some sadistic joy he gains from assuming superiority over others, but instead, his racism is a reaction – one that is easier for him to express publicly than his internal difficulties coping with more turbulent emotions that lie beneath the surface.
This depiction of Hank is significant, as it suggests to the audience that Hank’s racism is detached from his conscience and not an integral part of his character. At heart, Hank’s racism is acquiescence. It is to relapse into habits that are patrilineal, and thus safe, familiar, and comfortable to him; instead of challenging the alien issues that plague his innermost thoughts. Hank’s racism is not innate. So, as a result, Hank’s racism is fixable. And Leticia Musgrove will be the one to fix him.
Hank is a part of the force that supervises the aforementioned execution of an inmate named Lawrence Musgrove. Although they share a child together, Lawrence and Leticia have an estranged relationship, as he has been sitting on death row for the last eleven years. Hank and Leticia are unknowingly connected by this common thread, but the bond that truly brings them closer together is their shared experience in witnessing the traumatic deaths of their respective sons -deaths for which they must assume some level of culpability.
After the death of Leticia’s son, Hank and Leticia gradually build a quasi-romantic relationship with one another. Hank’s relationship with Leticia comprises the fundamental basis of his redemption project – his atonement for his racist past, his decision to “quit” racism. In fact, the most critical change in Hank’s character occurs after the most infamous scene of the entire film: the sex scene.
Leticia and Hank have sex almost immediately after the death of her son. She is in an extremely raw, volatile emotional state. The only family in her life is now completely gone. She is alone, and by her own admission, she is longing for fulfillment: “I want you to make me feel better. I want you to make me feel good. Just make me feel good. Can you make me feel good?”
The portrayal of sex between Hank and Leticia is carnal in nature, as both characters are completely bare emotionally, physically and mentally. Watching the pair have sex is almost like watching some perverse mating ritual. In many respects, this is an exceedingly disconcerting scene. The viewer feels like they are intruding on a moment that is certainly not romantic, but deeply intimate – too intimate to be watched. Hence, this scene marks a profound shift – for Hank more than anybody else. The intimacy of the scene allowes Hank to become emotionally open and thus, he undergoes an emotional transition -coupled with an exodus of his racism.
Hank grows fond of Leticia, and their relationship becomes even more romantic and generous; he drives her home from work, he opens up a gas station in her namesake, he gives her his deceased son’s car. One of Hank’s most impassioned rejections of racism is directly related to his growing affection toward Leticia, against a surprising subject: his father. In a state of racist stupor, Buck informs Leticia about his past experiences splitting “dark oak” and having a thing for “n—-r juice” in his prime.
Earlier in the film, a comment like this from Buck would elicit minimal reaction or revulsion from Hank. However, by this point, there is a much wider degree of separation being created between the two characters, particularly due to Hank’s gradual abandonment of racism vis-à-vis his relationship with Leticia. Hank is so disgusted with his father’s racist comment that he places Buck in a nursing home and eventually moves Leticia into his house instead.
Leticia is situated as what makes Hank emotionally whole or intact, removing him of his former racism and bigotry through the simple avenue of romantic interaction. He overcomes his racism through his relationship with Leticia, or at least, this is what the audience is expected to make of this character shift, which in turn allows him to gain access to his previously suppressed emotion. For Hank, racism was a refusal to be emotionally open; therefore, vulnerability and racism cannot coexist.
Comparatively, Leticia is not depicted as undergoing any significant character development as a result of her relationship with Hank. Her character is only important insofar as she serves Hank. This is because, again, Monster’s Ball is not a commentary about race, but a story about individual redemption – growing beyond racism. Thus, Leticia’s character is only necessary as a Black face to execute a curative intervention for Hank’s anti-black racism, an intervention that only begins after their relationship turns sexual. She is not built or redeemed by herself or anyone else but she is the redeeming agent for Hank, as she assists in the reconstruction of his character into a kind, non-racist subject. The implication is that romantic and/or sexual involvement amongst members of different races can effectively absolve years of vehement racism. That racism can be cured, and cured quickly. Is this reality?
Ultimately, the legacy of Monster’s Ball is a complicated one. What the film effectively represents is a comfortable, palatable depiction of racism and conversely, anti-racist praxis. The film is certainly not subversive in its depiction of race relations, and the conclusion it reaches that racism can be overturned through positive, heteroromantic interactions is faulty.
But the film is safe.
It is my belief that this is why it was so well-received. Nearly every aspect of the film is safe. The portrayal of racism as something impermanent that can easily be fixed is safe. Halle Berry, as a conventionally attractive, slim, fair-skinned Black woman, is safe – a comfortable, palatable depiction of Blackness. Nothing about the film provokes a re-examination of Hollywood tropes or tendencies, nor does it compel us to interrogate our own perceptions of race and power. And while I am not necessarily arguing that the accolades associated with the film are ill-deserved, I do believe that Monster’s Ball is no profound deviation from what Hollywood has seen before.
So once again, why did it provoke such a breakthrough?
Because it was safe. So, the decision to present Halle Berry with an Academy Award for her role was also safe – a safe way to gingerly transition and mollify dissent without sacrificing the traditionalist practices of the institution. And perhaps, in a counterintuitive way, the fact that no other woman of color has received this award since is an indication that our work is growing more disruptive, more nontraditional. It is becoming more radical, revolutionary, uncomfortable, avant-garde, seismic – and thus, it is more acutely speaking to the passions and consciousness of our people. The power of such work cannot be contained in an honorific. And maybe, someday, we will grow to no longer associate the value of our work to its universal recognition, but instead its impact.