After Halle's Oscar: Why Black Actresses Still Can't Get Any Respect in Hollywood

By Davis, Kimberly | Ebony, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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After Halle's Oscar: Why Black Actresses Still Can't Get Any Respect in Hollywood


Davis, Kimberly, Ebony


IN her historic speech at the Academy Awards last year, Halle Berry, who became the first African-American performer to win Best Actress in a leading role, emotionally told the audience that this "moment is so much bigger than me." Berry, who won for her controversial role in Monster's Ball, said the moment was for those who came before, for those who stand beside her, and for those who have only begun to dream of making it in Hollywood.

Many hailed the night as a barrier-breaker for Black performers (Denzel Washington took home the Best Actor statuette and Will Smith also garnered a nomination). Finally, some folks said, the door has been opened.

Others, however, knew the legacy of Hollywood. They knew that it had taken the entire history of the Oscars for a Black actress to win the highest prize. They knew that it had taken 40 years for another Black actor to follow up Sidney Poitier's 1963 Best Actor victory. They knew that the door had opened just enough for a little light to shine through.

One year later, very little has changed--particularly for Sisters in Hollywood. In the current landscape, only singer/actress Queen Latifah is gaining any sort of recognition. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting role as the prison matron in the musical film Chicago.

That's not to say that Black actresses were sitting on their hands in 2002. Sanaa Lathan had a star turn in Brown Sugar, and Angela Bassett and Mary Alice had important roles in Sunshine State. But notable roles for Black actresses were scarce beyond those two films.

It's the same old story, Hollywood insiders say. Acting is perhaps the last acceptable form of discrimination. And it's going to take more than one year and a couple of awards for any real change to occur on the movie screen and behind the scenes.

"Halle Berry is a real particular case, and I don't know if her victory really says anything for Black women in Hollywood beyond a real surface or symbolic level," says Todd Boyd, Ph.D., a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, who produced and co-wrote the 1999 film, The Wood. "Hollywood is not in the business of civil rights; they're in the business of making money. It's really not that complicated."

Those in the industry say racism and sexism are systemic in Hollywood, and that it won't be changed overnight. In the meantime, you can't take it too personally, says actress Gina Torres, costar of the long-awaited The Matrix sequels, The Matrix: Reloaded, which hits theaters in May, and The Matrix Revolutions.

In a business where all actors are discriminated against at some point because they don't have the right look, height, hair color or weight, you have to be willing to handle disappointment and you have to continue, Torres says, "bending the reality" that Hollywood power brokers have been seeing for decades.

"I think Halle winning the Oscar is great for Halle," says Torres, who recently married actor Laurence Fishburne. "I hope it's great for Halle. The one thing that I agreed with in her speech was that, yes, I'm sure there's a young girl somewhere thinking, `Hmm, I want that. Look at that.' Great! Because that's one more person out there who I didn't have when I was a young girl."

One longtime Hollywood agent, who asked not to be named, says Hollywood executives don't live with and don't have significant relationships with African-Americans, and therefore don't--or won't--give many of them a shot.

"There are so many talented Blacks out there who will never get an opportunity because it's a closed shop. That's the reality," says the agent, who has represented many Black actresses over the years. "It's all about revenue. If they see an opportunity to make money off of [Blacks], we're in. Other than that, get back!"

Money is the cog that turns the big Hollywood wheel, critics say.

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