Twenty years ago, Halle Berry made history when she became the first Black actress to take home a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball. Flash-forward two decades, and it’s a feat that sadly hasn’t been repeated. “It didnâ€™t open the door,” Berry observes in a new interview with The New York Times. “The fact that thereâ€™s no one standing next to me is heartbreaking.”
Berry took a big career risk when she accepted the role of Leticia Musgrove in Mark Forster’s 2001 drama. After her husband (hip-hop star Sean Combs) is convicted of murder and executed in a Georgia penitentiary, Leticia embarks on an affair with one of the corrections officers, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Monster’s Ball made headlines at the time of its release for an extended sex scene that required Berry to go topless for the second time that year, after the action movie, Swordfish.
“Everybody told me when I said yes to that part that it was not a good move,” Berry told Yahoo Entertainment last year while discussing her directorial debut, Bruised. “Because of the nature of the sex scene and just the nature of the movie … many people said, ‘You could ruin your career.’
Speaking with The New York Times now, Berry says she didn’t expect that she’d be up on the Oscar stage accepting a statue, especially since she had just missed out on winning a Golden Globe for the role. “Back in those days, if you didnâ€™t win the Globe, you really didnâ€™t get the Academy Award. So Iâ€™d pretty much resigned myself to believing, ‘Itâ€™s great to be here, but Iâ€™m not going to win.'”
Instead, presenter Russell Crowe read her name and cameras captured Berry appearing so shocked, she could barely stand. “I donâ€™t have any memory of it,” she says now. “I donâ€™t even know how I got up there. It was totally a blackout moment. All I remember is Russell Crowe saying, ‘Breathe, mate.’ And then I had a golden statue in my hand, and I just started talking.”
In her emotional speech, Berry dedicated her award to pioneering Black performer Dorothy Dandridge, who she had recently played in a 1999 HBO film, as well as past nominees like Diahann Carroll and Angela Bassett. “This moment is so much bigger than me,” she remarked. “Itâ€™s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Unfortunately, that door has largely remained shut since Berry’s Oscar night win. In the past 20 years, six Black actresses have been nominated for Best Actress â€” including Gabourey Sidibe, Cynthia Erivo and two nods for Viola Davis â€” but those statues have gone to other performers. Still, Berry prefers to focus on her peers’ achievements outside of awards shows.
“We canâ€™t always judge success or progress by how many awards we have,” she says. “Awards are the icing on the cake … but does that mean that if we donâ€™t get the exceptionally excellent nod, that we were not great, and weâ€™re not successful, and weâ€™re not changing the world with our art, and our opportunities arenâ€™t growing?”
The 94th Academy Awards air Sunday, Mar. 27 at 8 p.m. on ABC