Seeing Things in Black and White; Monster's Ball Exposes Hollywood's Failure of Nerve over Interracial Relationships

Article excerpt

Byline: AIDA EDEMARIAM

WHEN Halle Berry tearfully, some might say hysterically, accepted an Oscar a couple of months ago, the world's media fell into line. She was the first black woman to win for Best Actress, Denzel Washington the second black man to win best actor (the first was, of course, Sidney Poitier, who accepted his before America put a man on the moon).

Holly wood had finally - a bit late, granted - done the right thing.

O ver coffees and on the phone, there was more scepticism and confusion, particularly from Britain.

W hy should this still be such an issue? Couldn't Berry have been more restrained? And anyway, wasn't her Liverpudlian mother white? Most of the discussion concerned Berry's performance at the Oscars, rather than the performance that got her there in the first place.

The American attitude to race is in many ways alien to Britain - and it m ay be difficult for Britons to understand the significance that America has attached to the Berry film, Monster's Ball, released here today.

According to the Policy Studies Institute, 50 per cent of British-born black men have a white partner, and Britain has one of the highest per of mixed-race children in the occidental world.

Black-white pairings crop up in the culture all the time, from Holby City to the RSC, White Teeth to Secrets and Lies (though the latter is notable for its refusal to ask any hard questions). This is not to say that Britons aren't uncomfortable with it all - a recent BBC online poll revealed that only 30 per cent of Britons think the UK is tolerant of such unions - or that black-white relationships don't come in for a lot of flak.

In Monster's Ball, Berry plays the broke, downtrodden wife of a black death-row convict (Sean "P Diddy" Combs). She ends up with a white death-row guard (Billy Bob Thornton) from a virulently racist family.

Their black-white and very sexual relationship makes Monster's Ball rare in the history of Holly wood, w here the implicit message has been "you can sometimes look, but don't touch". Even rarer are examples such as Mission: Impossible 2, in which Tom Cruise's love interest is black, but it's not a plot issue.

As well as being first with his Oscar (for Lilies of the Field in 1963), Sidney Poitier broke the ground in black-white relationships in the classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), in which he played a brilliant black doctor engaged to the privileged white daughter of a newspaper editor (Spencer Tracy) and his art gallery-owning wife (Katharine Hepburn).

Monster's Ball, in fact, makes a good companion piece. The hardscrabble, openly racist rural South it portrays is the dark shadow, as it were, to the San Francisco liberal queasiness of the earlier film, and this rings true despite the 30 years between. More strikingly, both suffer from a particular failure of nerve: the black character must overcompensate. …