Of Halle Berry, the Academy Awards and diversity

Halle Berry, the only black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress, says the award that she won at the 74th Academy Awards in 2002 award means “nothing” now.

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The actress reportedly made the declaration in an interview with Teen Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth at Cannes Lions. She said that she first came to the stunning realisation last year after the Academy Awards announced a list of all-white acting nominees for the second year in a row.

It was probably one my lowest professional moments,” she says of how no people of colour were nominated in any of the major acting categories.

Ruminating on her 2002 historic Oscar win, the actress shares:

I sat there and I really thought, ‘Wow, that moment really meant nothing‘.

That meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think that meant nothing. And I was profoundly hurt by that and saddened by that.

It’s troubling, to say the least,” Berry says.

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Berry also said that the moment had inspired her in other ways.

I want to start directing. I want to start producing more,” she shares. “I want to start being a part of making more opportunities for people of colour. I have conversations more deeply with the Academy members, and I’m trying to figure out how to help and add more diversity into the Academy… These kinds of groups have to start changing and we have to start becoming more conscious and more inclusive.”

We need more people of colour writing, directing, producing, not just starring. We have to start telling stories that include us,” she adds.


A refresher

In 2001, Halle Berry starred as Leticia Musgrove in the movie Monster’s ball. The movie tells the story of a widowed corrections officer, Hank Grotowski (played by Billy Bob Thornton), his adult son, and his bigoted widowed father, all of whom work in the same profession. Hank befriends, and then starts a relationship with, Leticia Musgrove who he does not at first realise is the widowed wife of Lawrence Musgrove (played by Sean Comb), a man that he executed as part of his job.

In her acceptance speech for the Best Actress at the Academy Awards,  Ms Berry says: “This is for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

She told Vogue that the emotional speech was totally improvised because she was certain Sissy Spacek was going to take home the prize.

That just was what was ruminating in my spirit during that whole process and it just came out,” she says.


Events unfolding

The Academy has recently been criticised for what some people see as a lack of diversity in its nominating and selecting processes. In 2016, actors Will Smith and wife Jade Pinkett famously called for black people to boycott the Academy Award. Other famous actors including Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg and Lupita Nyong’o also spoke out against the lack of diversity following that year’s nominations in which all 20 nominees in acting categories are white included for the second consecutive year. That announcement led to the birth of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on social media.

Speaking at the time, the Academy President Cheryl Boone said that she is “heartbroken and frustrated” about the lack of inclusion. Following an unusual meeting of the 51-member governing body in January of that year, the Academy announced that it would make some radical changes to its voting requirement, recruiting process and governing structure, in order to increase the diversity of its membership. It set itself “Goal to double the number of diverse members by 2020.” Recent development seems to suggest that the Academy is working to achieve that goal. Just a few days ago, the Academy announced that it would increase the Oscar voting pool to 8,427 people by extending membership invitations to 774 entertainment professionals. According to the Academy, about 39 percent of those invited this year are women and approximately 30 percent are from minorities. If all invites are accepted, it would bring the total percentage of women to 28 percent (up from 27 percent) and minorities to 13 percent (up from 11 percent).

While many have lauded the Academy for its recent effort toward diversification, some have pointed out the arduous task it faces to meet its stated goal towards achieving gender parity by 2020. An analysis by the The New York Times of the Academy’s acting branch concluded that about 80 actors would need to be admitted a year, and three women for every man, to reach approximate gender parity by 2020.


Other confounding factors

It is one thing to diversify the Academy voting community, but there is a need to analyse how that might affect the quality of Oscar nominees and eventual winners. As some commentators have pointed out, Oscar is given out based on the evaluation of creative performance, filmmaking and acting; not on colour or gender. Nonetheless, some of the factors affecting the selection and voting processes could render such seemingly valid observation questionable. For instance, Oscar has no control over which films are released, nor the aggressive campaigning by film studios. Moreover, the evaluation of quality is subjective, and what appeals to one member might prove to be an anathema to another. Given these factors, one can only hazard guesses on how diversity might affect the Academy Awards.


Final thoughts

One can only speculate on the main reason for Halle Berry comments regarding her Oscar win. Self-doubt? Racism on the part of the Academy?  The frustration that it’s taking so long to have another woman of colour win an Oscar for Best Actress? Whatever the real reason (maybe it is even the one stated by Ms Berry), diversification of the Academy should not be attempted at the expense of the tenets for which the Awards were founded. That, in the opinion of the present writer, is the only way to preserve the prestige of the Oscar and what it stands for – a recognition by successful professionals in the industry of truly excellent performance, filmmaking and art. While, agreeing that increasing transparency of the whole voting process is desirable; it does not really signify what colour what nominees and eventual winners are, as long as it can be proved that they merit their statuettes based on limitations of the existing voting process. It took 74 years the first time to have a woman of colour win the Best Actress category, perhaps it might take another 74 years (or not) to produce the second win in any of the major categories, but whenever that time comes around, hopefully, it would be for the right reasons and not just because some people think they need to be politically correct; definitely not for skin colour. It is only then would the recipients be proud in the knowledge of their achievements.

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