Miniseries star Halle Berry likes exposure as opinions surface about Haley saga


February 17, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Before Sunday night and the start of "Queen," she was known primarily for her work in the film "Boomerang," her haircut and her recent marriage to Atlanta Braves right-fielder David Justice.

Suddenly, millions of people, some of whom never heard of her a week ago, are debating her performance in the title role as Alex Haley's grandmother in the CBS miniseries that concludes tomorrow night at 9 on WBAL (Channel 11). Halle Berry's got people talking.

"I hope people will like me," Berry said in an interview in Los Angeles before the miniseries aired. "But I guess it is true that either way, a lot more people will at least know who I am thanks to 'Queen.' "

The early ratings for "Queen" suggest that a lot more people do, indeed, already know who the 24-year-old Berry is.

Nationally, the first installment of "Queen," which aired Sunday night, blew away big-time sweeps counterprogramming on cable and the other networks. And, in Baltimore, the miniseries did even better, registering blockbuster ratings.

In the overnights for 29 major markets, "Queen" registered a 23.3 rating and 35 share. "Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie," did a 14.0 rating and 21 share for NBC, while the movie "Dick Tracy" averaged only a 8.9 rating and 14 share on ABC. By comparison, the "Queen" ratings were about a million homes higher than those for the first part of the "The Jacksons: An American Dream," an ABC miniseries that had set the standard for ratings hits this year as the highest-rated Sunday night movie of the TV season.

In Baltimore, though, which has the largest percentage of black viewers of any major market in the country, "Queen" did a 31.2 rating and 43 share. That means nearly one out of every two TV sets in the area Sunday night was tuned to "Queen." And there was no tune-out locally -- "Queen" finished its two hours Sunday with as large an audience as it started with.

Berry said she believed the appeal of "Queen" for viewers would be the same as it was for her: "The fact that this was a true story.

"I was not acting a character," she said. "I was re-enacting a part of history, and I felt very obligated.

"I felt like it was a responsibility that had been given to me to bring light in a dark place -- something that Alex used to always say. And I felt that a lot of black history is not noted. It's sort of an oral history that's passed on through the generations by word-of-mouth and by stories."

As predicted, there is considerable debate this week not only about Berry but also about just how "true" or, at least, representative a story of black history "Queen" is. Yes, Haley was involved in the production and ultimately approved the script, but he died last February before the filming. The writer, director and producers are all white. The issue of whites being the tellers of black history on TV is an issue not nearly discussed enough or understood.

Anyone willing to go back and read the reviews and follow-up stories from 1977 will find there was a similar debate about "Roots" -- with many blacks denouncing "Roots" and Haley. Because of his death, and uncertainty about what might have been done without his approval during filming, "Queen" can be ** denounced without denouncing Haley.

Berry said that for her part she has no doubts about the veracity and resonance of the story.

"I held onto the fact that this was a true story. . . . This was a vehicle for me [and the other actors] to bring this oral story to life. So, that you and everyone else might sit at home and watch it and learn."

Berry said there was also a personal connection for her to the Queen character. "Well, for me being interracial myself, it hit me harder . . . because I realized that, had I been born 100 years ago, this could be my story," she said.

Berry has a white mother and a black father. She was raised by her mother, a nurse in Cleveland, after her parents separated when she was 4, Berry said. She added that playmates used to call her "zebra" and "half-breed," just as the young Queen is taunted in the miniseries by other children on the plantation.

Berry also remembered seeing "Roots" when she was 8 and the impact it had. "One of the things I remember most," she said, "is how affected I was by seeing . . . so many black people on television. Because, at that time, there weren't black people on television.

"So, I felt good because I saw so many of my own people on television. But, then, I saw them in shackles and being beaten . . . and all these injustices being done to them. And I had my white mother to turn to to explain all this to me."

Berry returned one last time to the theme of miscegenation in talking about her life and its connection to that of Haley's grandmother: "Queen's life could have been my life. And that was horrifying, because being an interracial person today, sure, we deal with our own set of unique problems, but it was nothing compared to what interracial people 100 years ago had to deal with."

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