In Ralph Ellison’s lauded 1952 debut novel Invisible Man, race constantly overshadows its black protagonist’s existence. More than 60 years after the release of this instant classic, the same routine neglect extends to every area of society—Hollywood, especially. And when it comes to the highest honors, history has rendered black women virtually invisible. But one March night in 2002, that seemed to change.
Halle Berry made history at the 74th Academy Awards, becoming the first black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as put upon single mother Leticia Musgrove in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball. The same night, Denzel Washington won Best Actor for his work in Training Day, marking the first time two black performers claimed the top acting awards. Further amplifying the evening’s magnitude, Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Oscar, was given an honorary award celebrating his career. And while other black men have taken home the Best Actor award in subsequent years (Jamie Foxx in 2005; Forest Whitaker in 2007), Berry stands out as the lone black woman to win Best Actress. This underlines the historic invisibility of black women in Hollywood: even under the spotlight and on the largest stage, they remain afterthoughts.
“This moment is so much bigger than me,” Berry said through tears of joy that night at Los Angeles’s Kodak Theatre. “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.”
Berry’s deluge of emotion came from the blunt emotional trauma of running into that closed door throughout her career. It came from building on the tradition Hattie McDaniel started when she became the first black performer to be nominated and win an Oscar in 1939. It came from watching previous nominees in the same category like Dandridge (who Berry portrayed in 1999’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, winning an Emmy and a Golden Globe), Carroll, Bassett, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, and Whoopi Goldberg get that far and believing runner-up was the highest plateau a black actress could reach. And it came from hoping that her breakthrough would be the catalyst for change. But, alas, one moment can’t reverse a legacy of racism and sexism. That’s part of the reason Bassett has said she turned Berry’s award-winning role down.
“I wasn’t going to be a prostitute on film,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2002, referring to the scene’s infamous, graphic interracial sex scene. “I couldn’t do that because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality. Film is forever. It’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.”
Although Bassett said she is proud of Berry, her issues with Monster’s Ball echo enduring points of contention about the film and Berry’s performance. It’s the idea that black women have to lessen themselves by playing white men’s sex objects to earn recognition in an industry overseen by white men. In the same interview, Bassett reveals that she didn’t work for a year and a half after her 1994 Oscar nod for playing Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It. She called it a reminder that, “for someone who looks like her,” talent isn’t the only factor influencing her career. Bassett also recalls leaving a meeting regarding 1999’s Entrapment (according to her, Sean Connery raved about “how beautiful [their] skin would look next to each other’s”) thinking she’d secured the part. It ultimately went to the lesser-known Catherine Zeta-Jones. What’s more, even post Oscar win, Berry’s familiar to the same struggle.
During a 2015 interview with the Guardian, she was asked about the difficulty women over 40 face finding roles. She revealed a truth that likely applies to the majority of black women in Hollywood: it was never easy to find roles. “I’ve always had a hard time getting roles, being of color, so I’ve got as many available to me as I’ve always had—there’s no difference for me,” Berry said. “When I was 21, it was as hard as it is now when I’m 48.” Her Oscar win didn’t blast the door of opportunity ajar for anyone, herself included.
Last year, amid the second consecutive in which every nominee in the acting categories was white and the ensuing #OscarsSoWhite furor, Berry finally opened up about “the elephant in the room”: her moment in history changed nothing. A better tomorrow for black women in Hollywood was a fantasy. “I believed that, with every bone in my body, this was going to incite change because this barrier had been broken,” she told Entertainment Tonight. “And to sit here almost 15 years later knowing another woman of color has not walked through that door is heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking, because I thought that moment was bigger than me.”
Berry’s gripe with Hollywood, similar to many others, is that it isn’t honest in its renderings of society. “As filmmakers and actors, we have a responsibility to tell the truth, and the films that are coming out of Hollywood aren’t truthful,” she added. “And the reason they aren’t truthful these days is because they aren’t really depicting the importance, involvement, and participation of people of color in our American culture.” But when Hollywood’s pecking order—from the studios, to the talent agencies and media—is overwhelmingly white, this comes as little surprise. Everything is seen through an almost exclusively white lens, which, as the Sony email leaks revealed, leads to cautionary racism that further marginalizes the already marginalized. However, the response to last year’s Oscars nominees forced the powers that be to address this.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences owned up to the problem prior to 88th Academy Awards and vowed to correct it. This year’s list of Oscar nominees features black performers in every acting category, and three of the Best Picture nominees offer varied looks at the black experience. One of them, Hidden Figures, is based on the true story of three black women whose work as NASA mathematicians in the 1960s was pivotal (Project Mercury, anyone?), but whose existence was ignored and contributions to history were buried—a classic case of erasure.
Despite instant box office success that should distinguish Hidden Figures (and refute any lingering claims that only certain films about black people are profitable), both Jenna Bush Hager and Michael Keaton accidentally referred to the film as “Hidden Fences” during cirque de Golden Globes, merging its title with that of Denzel’s Washington’s August Wilson adaptation, Fences. God forbid two critically-acclaimed films about black people be released during the same awards cycle. Hidden Figures highlights the uphill battle black women have faced in every profession; “Hidden Fences” are the unseen confines impeding their progress. The confusion, no matter how innocent, reinforces what was true in the film and remains true in Hollywood: black women aren’t priorities, no matter what they accomplish.
Fifteen years after the pinnacle of Halle Berry’s career, the 89th Academy Awards presents a similar scenario. Denzel Washington is once again nominated for Best Actor and Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian and Irish woman, is nominated for Best Actress for her performance in Loving—a film about an interracial relationship. Will history repeat itself? Don't get your hopes up.