Fifteen years after becoming the first black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress, Halle Berry is reflecting on the impact of that history-making moment — and she’s disappointed in what she sees.
Berry recently told Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth that her personal and industry milestone now feels somewhat meaningless given the stagnation of opportunity and recognition for actresses of color that followed.
“That moment really meant nothing,” Berry lamented. “It meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing.”
Many people, including Berry herself, initially viewed her 2002 win for Monster’s Ball as a game-changing achievement that would lead to expanded opportunities for other black actresses to take on more creatively competitive roles and receive award recognition for their work. But despite small increases for minorities in lead roles since 2002, she remains the only black woman to win the Oscars’ Best Actress honor.
Berry’s interview, which took place at the Cannes Lions Festival, also covered the issue of #OscarsSoWhite and its resounding backlash, which led Berry to reveal that she “was profoundly hurt” by the ways her win failed to open doors for others, as she tearfully proclaimed it would in her 2002 Oscars acceptance speech:
Since the Oscars first began in 1928, the Best Actress category has seen only 17 nominations for women of color (two of which went to the same actress), with the earliest dating back to Merle Oberon’s 1935 role in The Dark Angel. And since Berry’s win in 2002, eight women of color, including Salma Hayek, Gabourey Sidibe, and Viola Davis, have been nominated in the Best Actress category — but none of them have won.
The recent #OscarsSoWhite movement highlighted Hollywood’s ongoing struggles with representation and inclusion
More than a decade after Berry’s historic win, the 2015 Oscar nominees featured zero nonwhite acting nominees, across all the acting categories. In response, activist April Reign started the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag to address the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences’ racial exclusion. The hashtag resurfaced again in 2016 when, for the second year in a row, not a single actor of color was nominated for any of the major awards. In response, major Hollywood players like Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee boycotted the ceremony out in protest.
The #OscarsSoWhite movement was arguably a major catalyst of change in the way that nominees — and by extension, winners — are now chosen. In January of 2016, the Academy’s board of governors voted to “make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse,” according to a statement from the organization.
Prior to making that pledge, the Academy’s voting membership was just 25 percent female and 8 percent people of color. But with its 2016 membership invitations, the Academy added 683 new members, 46 percent of whom were women and 41 percent of whom were people of color. And the just-announced class of new Academy members for 2017 contains a record 774 people, 39 percent of whom are female and 30 percent of whom are people of color.
But as Vox’s Aja Romano notes, “while the Academy is eager to tout its growth rates, its overall membership is still woefully homogeneous — and despite the record numbers, the Academy’s push toward greater diversity may actually be slowing.”
That’s not to say Hollywood and the Academy haven’t made any progress. The Oscars’ 2017 acting nominees were considerably more diverse than the nominees in previous years, and four of the nine Best Picture nominees — Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, and Moonlight — were about people of color. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff wrote in January:
Was #OscarsSoWhite responsible for the sudden diversity of this list of nominees? In the sense that it spurred change at the Academy, yes. But what’s most important here is that Hollywood made these films. They’re all in Oscar-friendly genres — Moonlight is a coming-of-age story, Hidden Figures is a historical drama, Fences is a stage adaptation, and Lion is a feel-good tearjerker — but they’re also all about people of color. As recently as last year, that just wasn’t happening.
The push for better diversity and representation in Hollywood continues to move more slowly than it should, but in 2017, it appears to have borne some fruit.
Although things have and are still clearly changing in Hollywood, the pace has been disconcertingly slow, making Berry’s win more of an exception than a rule. Though it may have been monumental, as her own recent thoughts illustrate, it takes a lot more than a single Oscar win to open doors and affect change.