IN 2002, WHEN Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a best actress Academy Award for her role as the forever-yearning widow Leticia Musgrove in “Monster’s Ball,” she wept as she accepted her golden statue. Many black Americans immediately identified with that well of emotion, which reflected both the toll of her journey and the hope for more change to come.
But Hollywood has always been a mercurial experiment, with white men holding the reins of power, making progress, inclusion and diversity at best a seasonal proposition. Almost 20 years on, Berry remains the only African-American woman to win a best actress Oscar. And yet there is an increasing sense that it is the Academy that is behind the times. We are living in an age in which some of our greatest, most successful actors are black women, near 50 or older, veterans who have fought against an industry that for much of its history would have rather ignored them. Some of them, like Taraji P. Henson and Berry, began with bit parts on TV. Others, like Viola Davis, who got her start in the theatre, or Mary J. Blige, who had almost 10 years of hit singles to her name before being cast in her first film role, came to cinema later in their careers. Many of these actresses were first reliable character actors or supporting players in the 1980s and ’90s, during a shift in what studios deemed bankable, a time that saw a spate of films targeted to black audiences: “Jungle Fever” (1991), Berry’s big-screen debut; “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1993), with Angela Bassett’s star-making turn as Tina Turner; “Set It Off” (1996), with Kimberly Elise as a bank robber; and “Eve’s Bayou” (1997), with Lynn Whitfield as the matriarch of an upper-middle-class Southern family. This was a kind of golden era, allowing this generation of black American actresses — women who also include Alfre Woodard, Regina King and Queen Latifah — to showcase their depth on a scale previously unimaginable.
Extraordinary African-American actresses, including Halle Berry, Angela Bassett and Taraji P. Henson, remember their first roles and discuss the solidarity they feel with one another.
When money for projects with black casts dried up in Hollywood by the end of the ’90s, these actresses carried on, forced to look farther down the thoroughfare than merely the steps they could see. To be a black woman in Hollywood is to have to be steadfast in the pursuit of one’s craft, in the search for basic opportunities. They have had to toil through the intricacies of a doubly marginalised existence — being black and being a woman — and have rarely been allowed to fully extol the complexities of their truth for the screen.
THIS HAS BEEN the historical situation for women of colour in Hollywood, all of whom are cupped in the palms of mighty forebears. There was Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award, for her role as “Mammy” in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). Then there was the singer and actress Lena Horne of “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky,” both from 1943 and early exceptions in mainstream Hollywood as popular films with black casts. Or Diahann Carroll, the star of the sitcom “Julia” (1968-71), the first black woman to lead a network series. And of course, there’s Dorothy Dandridge, the first black woman nominated for a best actress Oscar for her role in 1954’s “Carmen Jones,” a woman presciently portrayed by Berry in a 1999 biopic, and Cicely Tyson, who at 95 has played strong leading roles throughout her nearly seven-decade career. Like their predecessors, these women were journeymen out of necessity, often lone souls in their creative environments.
As the Hollywood landscape is, again, recognising the need for diversity in front of and behind the camera, it is these same veterans who have gone from supporting players to marquee names, the ones who have proven themselves able to carry a film or show to commercial and critical success almost single-handedly. They have always had the range and ability to do so, but now they also have leverage. Bassett, Davis and Henson all helm major network dramas, and last year, King starred in the limited-series adaptation of “Watchmen.” Blige was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 2017 period drama “Mudbound.” Their persistence has rippled outward, altering the entire industry, forcing a conversation about power in Hollywood. The last few years have also seen a surge in black women — including Berry, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes and Lena Waithe — serving as producers, directors and show runners.
The notion of having a critical mass of black actresses over the age of 50 isn’t something we could have fathomed three decades ago. It would have been hard to predict even when Berry was accepting her best actress Oscar. In her speech, she dedicated her win to “every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” That door is still closed for many, and in an era where #OscarsSoWhite trends annually, there is still work to be done. But in refusing to be sidelined, these women charted a map of an altogether new territory — and changed the terms of who gets to be at the top.
Not pictured: Debbie Allen, Regina King, Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Cicely Tyson.
Brian Keith Jackson is a novelist and essayist. Racquel Chevremont is a collector, art adviser and co-founder of Deux Femmes Noires, a platform that brings visibility to artists of colour and queer artists. Mickalene Thomas is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist who addresses female sexuality, beauty and power in her work. She is the co-founder of Deux Femmes Noires. Producer: 3 Star Productions. On the cover only: Viola Davis: Hair: Jamika Wilson. Makeup: Autumn Moultrie at the Wall Group. In the group photo, from left to right: Taraji P. Henson: Hair: Tym Wallace. Makeup: Ashunta Sheriff. Mary J. Blige: Hair: Tym Wallace. Makeup: D’Andre Michael. Angela Bassett: Hair: Randy Stodghill at Opus Beauty using Oribe. Makeup: D’Andre Michael. Lynn Whitfield: Hair: Larry Sims. Makeup: Rebekah Aladdin. Makeup assistant: Rachel Aladdin. Halle Berry: Hair: Sara Seward. Makeup: Jorge Monroy. Manicure: Nettie Davis. Kimberly Elise: Hair: Nina J Potts at SixK.LA. Makeup: Kym Nicole Oubre. Set braids: Courtney Elzy. Set design by Jill Nicholls.
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