Remarks by Bassett touch off firestorm

Berry gets support, but some question `Monster' image

July 03, 2002|By Greg Braxton and Anne Valdespino | Greg Braxton and Anne Valdespino,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOLLYWOOD - A tearful, overwhelmed Halle Berry declared, "This moment is so much bigger than me" when she became the first black woman to win a best actress Oscar. The triumph was not hers alone, she said, but belonged to past and current black actresses who have struggled in Hollywood.

More than three months later, Berry's words still ring true - but in a way she likely did not anticipate.

Caustic remarks by Angela Bassett in the July 1 issue of Newsweek, in which she criticizes the sexual nature of Berry's Oscar-winning role in Monster's Ball while subtly questioning Berry's choice in taking on the part, has reignited a fierce debate inside and outside the black entertainment community about Berry and the bittersweet significance of her victory.

From the set of Showtime's urban drama Soul Food in Toronto, to the tables of the Starbucks cafe in South-Central Los Angeles, quiet discussions and heated arguments erupted last week surrounding Bassett's remarks and Berry's portrayal of a downtrodden mother and waitress who finds sexual release and romantic comfort in the arms of a white prison guard who she is unaware has helped put her husband to death in the electric chair.

As for Bassett, the lightning rod for many blacks concerns that relationship, which is solidified by explicit sex scenes between Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, whose character is initially shown as a racist.

Said Felicia D. Henderson, executive producer of Soul Food: "After all this time has passed, so many want to stand up and applaud Halle. But others say, `Isn't it sad that she had to be the sexual object of a white man? It shows that it's a man's world, with sexism and racism.'"

Some performers have accused Newsweek and other media outlets of attempting to spark a feud between two of the industry's top black actresses. Vanessa Williams, one of the stars of Soul Food, said, "These sisters love each other. It's so annoying that the media would make this into something divisive. Why would the media try to tear a sister down?"

But others attribute the discourse to the continuing uneasy, mixed reactions of blacks toward Monster's Ball that have surrounded the film since its release late last year. The continuing sensitivity over the role has cast an unexpected shadow over Berry's accomplishment.

"This has been a no-win for Halle Berry," said Lee Bailey, publisher and executive producer of the Electronic Urban Report, a Web site linked to the Radioscope entertainment program. "She is still getting flak from black folks. It's overwhelmed her historic achievement. The role is still a source of irritation. And it's wrong. There's a lot of hatin' going on."

Producer-director Roy Campanella II said, "I felt Halle delivered a brilliant, exceptionally fine performance. She deserved the honor. Unfortunately, to have a discussion of Monster's Ball is to look at what it says about the racial psyche. And that's been associated with her. She's not the issue. But she's becoming the issue."

Campanella, who is developing an ABC movie on singing legend Lena Horne, added that he thought Monster's Ball "associates a level of animalistic sexuality to black women in a manner that could easily bseen as demeaning. I believe Angela has a valid point."

In the Newsweek interview, Bassett - one of the actresses Berry praised in her Oscar acceptance speech - says she had turned down the lead in Monster's Ball because she found the relationship between the two characters demeaning.

"I wasn't going to be a prostitute on film," she says. "I couldn't do that because it's such a stereotype about black women and sexuality." Although she emphasized she was not criticizing Berry, she appeared to contradict herself in adding, "Film is forever. It's about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that."

Later in the article, Bassett said she loved Berry's performance. She also said, "I would love to have an Oscar. But it has to be for something I can sleep with at night."

Response was swift.

Actress Vivica Fox told Access Hollywood that Berry saw the role as an opportunity "to shine," acknowledging that all actresses might not agree with the choice.: "Don't be trippin' on Halle! Halle got it down! OK, don't hate! Congratulate Halle!"

Cultural experts weighed in on talk shows such as Tavis Smiley's program on National Public Radio. Bassett was accused of being jealous of Berry.

Fueling the debate is Bassett's contention that she turned down the female lead in Monster's Ball. Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, which produced the movie, said Bassett was not offered the role.

"Nobody was ever offered the role of Leticia except Halle Berry," he said. "Anyone who says anything to the contrary is misspeaking."

For now, Berry is not responding to Bassett or anyone else about the furor. "There is nothing I need to add to that," she said Friday.

Greg Braxton and Anne Valdespino write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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