Halle Berry is back in the mix at this year’s Oscars… but she’s in no mood for celebrations. She plays a washed-up cage fighter in Bruised – and also directs the movie. But any plaudits cannot hide the pain Halle feels that she remains the only black woman ever to pick up the Oscar for Best Leading Actress. When she won the award in 2002 for her stunning performance in Monster’s Ball, it was hailed as a defining moment for Hollywood as much as it was for her.
Fighting back tears she told Tinseltown’s elite at the time: “This moment is so much bigger than me. This award is for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Almost 20 years on, Halle, 54, is being touted again as a possible contender for this year’s Academy Awards in April. But it’s not how she hoped things would pan out.
She says: “The heartbreak I have is because I really thought that night meant that very soon after that, other women of colour, black women, would stand beside me. Now it’s been 20 years and no one has, and so every time Oscar time comes around, I get very reflective and I think, ‘Well maybe this year, maybe this year’. It has become heartbreaking that no one else has stood there.
“Arguably there could have been other women who deserve to have been there that haven’t been there and I would have hoped that in 20 years, there would have been others that would be beside me. That moment mattered because so many people have come up to me over the years and told me how that moment shifted their thinking about what they could achieve, what they aspire to do or what they believed they could do – that they were touched by that moment. That is the value that I know is real.”
Since the first Oscars ceremony in 1929, 92 white stars have won the Best Leading Actress gong. Halle, a Bond girl in 2002 movie Die Another Day, is the only black actress to scoop the top award – despite 12 others being nominated. Eight black stars have won Best Supporting Actress over the years. But Hollywood is haunted by decades of racial and sexual inequality. Halle fears campaigns such as #Oscarsso- white appear to have brought little change. Ironically, her new role in Bruised was initially written for a 25-year-old white Irish girl – but Halle convinced producers to give her the part of a fighter on the comeback trail.
She says: “I knew ‘as written’ the role could not be me. But what I loved was it was a classic fight film. People love to root for the underdog. I loved the fracture and brokenness of this character and I love to see a film about redemption. I want to see the human spirit soar, to see someone rise above obstacles.
“That’s what most people relate to because we all struggle in that way at some point. We’re struggling to survive and get it right and show up for ourselves and for our family. So there were so many things about it that felt like what I instinctively knew. My job was how I could convince the producers who had the rights to this movie that they should let me reimagine it for a middle-aged black woman and how I could play this fighter and how I could tell this story.”
Halle came up with a different slant – reshaping the world it was set in, the characters and the neighbourhood – and pitched it back to the producers. She was surprised when they agreed, then tasked her with finding her own director. In the end, she trusted herself to take on that role too. In the Netflix movie, which has yet to be given a release date, Halle plays disgraced martial arts fighter Jackie Justice. Her comeback is blocked by a fearsome opponent known as Lady Killer, played by real-life UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, 32.
Kyrgyzstan-born Shevchenko showed Halle the ropes and the pair became great friends. But filming was pretty tough, to say the least. Halle cracked two ribs when she was floored by a knee to the chest during a climactic showdown. Mum-of-two Halle – who immersed herself in jujitsu, judo, taekwondo and kickboxing for the role – said: “When you do your own stunts as I do, you have to accept there will be accidents.” Halle launched her own production company in 2014 and hopes young black actresses may take the directorial reins too.
Asked what inspired her to take creative control, Halle says: “I’m inspired to see so many women of colour writing, producing, directing, telling our own stories from our own guise, our own lands, daring to do so. And I’m also inspired by those who aren’t of colour who are supp-orting those of colour and helping them realise these opportunities and supporting them along the way. So it’s starting to feel better.”
X-Men star Halle draws on her own real-life tribulations when playing complex characters. Divorced three times, she has faced lawsuits, custody battles and bitter break-ups.
She says: “Every time I get those roles, I have a cathartic experience and some healing from my own self. And I get to share parts of myself that are hidden.”
Her latest role may involve fractures in the most physical sense of the word. But if there’s anyone who knows about triumphing against the odds, it’s Halle Berry.