Twenty years ago, Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress, making her the only Black woman to ever do so. Reflecting on this in February, Berry told ABC’s TJ Holmes that she’s “completely heartbroken that there’s no other woman standing next to me.” Her words are a sore reminder of the tearfully long acceptance speech Berry made back in 2002, in which she declared that her win was for every “nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance.”
That chance has remained slim. This year, Penélope Cruz, who made history in 2009 for being the first Spanish-born actress nominated for Best Actress, has another chance at winning for Parallel Mothers. But the dearth of moments like these only underscore the longstanding #OscarsSoWhite tradition, even as, in the years since Berry’s win, Hollywood has slowly begun featuring Black actresses in a wider breadth of roles. That this increase in representation isn’t met with even a gradual rise in acclaim raises a weird question: If Monster’s Ball is still the only movie in which a performance from a Black actress is recognized as superlative, does that mean that Leticia Musgrove is the best portrayal of a Black woman in the award show’s history?
It’s interesting to look back at what that means, and how the film and Berry’s win have aged, now that we, as a society, claim to know better than we did when the movie was made. Monster’s Ball, written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, is laden with racial tension. The lives of Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) are both marred by tragedy. Hank is a part of the “death team” on death row at the state penitentiary. He’s inherited hatred—and his occupation—from his father, Buck. Leticia has spent 11 years visiting her husband, Lawrence (Sean Combs), who is sentenced to death by electrocution, in that same prison. An unlikely romance between Hank and Leticia is unknowingly bound by their connection to Lawrence and, ultimately, how his death sends ripples through their day-to-day lives. It’s the sort of film that institutions like the Oscars love: a story about how human connection can be the antidote to the ugliness of racism. (It was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay.)
The best parts of Monster’s Ball are the subtleties of Addica and Rokos’ script, which implicitly reveal Hank and Leticia’s motives. When Hank finds Leticia on the side of the road after her son Tyrell is tragically hit by a car, he stresses to the authorities that he doesn’t “really” know her, [though he recognizes her from the diner]. It’s an attempt to save face and distance himself from Leticia. When Tyrell succumbs to his injuries, Leticia reveals to Hank that the hospital suggested she call the coroner in the morning to confirm the cause of death, despite the fact that she was there when he was struck. They assume that because he’s a poor, Black child, something more violent must have happened. Hank reassures her that the police will find the person who hit him, and Leticia responds, “He’s a Black kid. You think they gon’ do that?” The brief moment of dialogue effectively expresses their opposing points of view: a white man with faith in the police force, and a Black woman who knows better. But it’s focused on his edification, rather than her need for more support.
Initial reviews of the film were mixed. In a CNN critique, Paul Tatara considered it a “vastly overpraised study of racism,” emphasizing how unlikely it would be for a man like Hank, who pulled a rifle out on two Black children earlier in the film, would have fallen this hard for Leticia. Conversely, Roger Ebert saw Hank’s arc “not about redemption… but about how [his views] fall away from him like a dead skin because his other feelings are so much more urgent.” Except, racism—especially the kind depicted in this film—doesn’t just “fall away.” The Grotowski home is emblematic of the family’s views: Buck collects death row news clippings in a photo album, and a Confederate flag is never too far out of frame. The patriarch is fixated on how things used to be, and his obsession with capital punishment at a prison with a mostly Black population is the Grotowski tradition—until his grandson, Sonny (Heath Ledger), not only befriends his Black neighbors but Lawrence, too. Sonny’s death by suicide after being shunned by his family is a catalyst for Hank’s willingness to accept Leticia after the two cross paths. His new obsession becomes saving her.
Leticia’s character, taken in the wider context of the movie, makes Berry’s win for Best Actress a little more convoluted 20 years later. For a leading role, we know very little about the character. The film never explains her life prior to Lawrence’s execution—the specifics of his crime are never revealed. Unlike Hank, she doesn’t experience a transformative arc, and her changes of circumstance, like securing housing, car, and a new job, are all provided by Hank.
One night, Hank offers to give Leticia a ride back home after her shift. After chugging miniature bottles of Jack Daniels, both of their defenses are down. She drunkenly declares that she wants Hank to make her feel good again, and Hank replies that it’s been years, maybe even decades, since he last felt emotion. Berry has even described the sex scene as “raw” and “animalistic,” —these weren’t two people with a real attraction as much as it was two people who were convenient for each other. When Leticia mentions Lawrence to him moments before, Hank doesn’t disclose that he not only knew Lawrence, but put him to death. By withholding that information, Hank has the upper hand over Leticia yet again, and their sex also functions to reestablish the power dynamic between the two.
When Leticia eventually figures out the connection, she doesn’t mention it to Hank. Instead, she retreats with him on the porch with chocolate ice cream. She seems to make peace with it. The message suggests that Hank, no matter his actions, is still worthy of Leticia’s love. It’s a low bar to set: Black women should be glad to accept something.
This is also the message sent to Black actresses by the Oscars. Reexamining Berry’s historic 2002 win is not a slight to her career or her performance in Monster’s Ball. Certainly there are other stories to tell. Last year, Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) and Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) lost in the Best Actress category, having been nominated for their portrayals of iconic Black American singers. Despite her cultural characterization as “the Black Meryl Streep,” Davis, who is the most nominated Black woman in Oscar history, has only won for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fences. Davis’ portrayal of Rose Maxson begs the question of who gets relegated to supporting roles.
In looking back at Monster’s Ball, the accolades it got for making a Black woman’s character into a savior for a racist white man begins to feel like a snub and omission in its own right. When performances along these minimizing lines are what Black women have to accept to earn recognition, the threshold for success feels more like a trap.
Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer for VICE.