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Friday, June 17, 2011

The Impact of Halle Berry on Black Cinema

I don’t know Halle Berry at all. Heck I’ve never even met her. So this blog isn’t personal.

I’m writing about Halle Berry from an objective reviewer’s perspective and a business perspective, the same way studio executives, producers, and directors do. And from that standpoint she’s not that pretty.

All I know of Halle Berry from is her body of work. And from that resume of performances I know that she started out as an actress with a lot of promise. Her work in early films like Jungle Fever, Losing Isaiah, and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge showed a great amount of passion and heart. I felt her energy and spirit in every performance.

However, in her later years her body of work stopped being strong. After the first X-Men Movie something got lost. A spark. That passion. That heart. Then Came Swordfish, a gratuitous nude scene and her onscreen energy wasn’t the same. Monster’s Ball may have won her an Oscar, but it was clear she’d lost her soul as a performer. After that Oscar win her acting became more flat and uninspired. In films like Their Eyes Were Watching God, Catwoman, and Perfect Stranger It was like watching a DEAD woman onscreen. Looking at her early work and then her later films It’s like watching two different women onscreen.

Looking objectively at her body of work I saw her strengths and I saw her weaknesses as an actress. While Halle Berry is attractive and very talented, she has lacked in several areas craft wise as a performer. First off, she has no charisma. That prevents the audience from connecting with her in lead roles. It prevents her from disappearing into a character. It prevents the audience from seeing her character or her character’s problems. It prevents us from feeling her character’s energy. And if an actress can’t get the audience to see their character, identify with their character or their character’s problems they won’t be able to relate on a personal level when watching a movie.

Halle also lacks the ability to convey emotions effectively. Due to her lack of charisma, we rarely feel her characters emotions. This weakness doesn’t come across in most dramatic scenes, (drama is easier) but it shows up consistently in comedy where the small nuances of within facial expressions are crucial for telling a joke. She lacks subtlety; we can’t tell how she’s feeling by just a look or a glance in a single shot. Moreover, we don’t feel the “vibe” (subtext) between the lines when she speaks. And it’s this inability to transpose the subtext between the lines of a screenplay that keeps her from having effective chemistry with her co-stars, leaving her performances stiff and awkward in romantic scenes.

In addition to lacking charisma and emotional conveyance Halle also lacks screen presence. When she’s onscreen she isn’t the center of attention; the audience doesn’t feel like it has to pay attention to her. when she’s onscreen by herself she’s mousy and awkward and doesn’t take control of the scene. Worse, she gets overpowered by stronger actors like Robert Downey Jr, Terrence Howard, Penelope Cruz, and Ruby Dee. A lead actress has to COMMAND the screen when they’re on it and Halle Berry isn’t aggressive enough to do that.

Without these two elements it’s impossible for an actor to carry a movie for two hours. Moreover, it’s impossible for the audience to CARE about the film they are watching for two hours. And if the audience doesn’t CARE, then it has NO REASON be compelled to watch the movie. It has NO REASON to be COMPELLED to pay $12 of their hard-earned cash to watch a movie.

Compound this with the numerous POOR CHOICES she makes regarding projects and it’s clear why her career is in trouble.

Right now, Berry picks projects that aren’t a good fit for her. While many of her early films (especially the African-American ones) played to her strengths, Many of the roles she’s starred in post-Oscar play up all her weaknesses. In Gothika she was overpowered by stronger performers like Penelope Cruz, Charles Dutton, and Robert Downey Jr who had much stronger screen presences. Catwoman was an edgy role that required an actress have an aggression, intensity, and a strong screen presence. She looked like a wimp. Perfect Stranger was role that required a charismatic personality which had grit, tenacity, and toughness. With Halle It felt forced and awkward. Their Eyes Were Watching God required an incredibly strong screen presence and an intricate nuanced performance to make us care about Janie Crawford’s struggles and understand her plight as a black woman. Halle looked lost and confused for most of the movie. And her more recent films like Things We Lost in The Fire and Frankie & Alice left the audience indifferent about her performance and the story onscreen.

And Indifference in the movie business is BAD. Indifference does not generate buzz. It doesn’t sell movie tickets. It doesn’t generate word-of-mouth that gets repeat moviegoers. In the film industry indifference is the KISS OF DEATH.

Actors who make the audience indifferent are BAD FOR BUSINESS. Studio Executives HATE THEM because they can’t open movies. Screenwriters HATE THEM because they can’t carry a STORY. Seasoned Directors HATE THEM They can’t emote properly and draw audiences into the story. Seasoned Producers HATE THEM because they are a BLACK HOLE of time and money they can’t get back. While they may have a name, they just aren’t worth a serious investment.

Do I hate Halle Berry? No.

She makes me indifferent.

So why am I concerned about Halle Berry making me indifferent? Because I understand the long-term impact of Halle’s poor business choices on Black Filmmakers, Black actors, and Black cinema overall.

And that makes me passionate.

When a Halle Berry vehicle fails, it makes nervous studio executives think twice about casting other black actresses in lead roles. That costs sistas who are better performers WORK. There are a dozen black actresses who can carry a movie from start to finish but are denied a chance because studio executives look at the poor box office performance of a bad Halle Berry movie (the black female A-lister who can’t open strong) and that lead role winds up in the hands of a Latina, Asian, Indian or a White actress.

When a Halle Berry vehicle fails, producers who already fear making Black movies become more apprehensive about greenlighting projects with black women in the lead roles. So when Hollywood’s leading black actress picks poor quality projects like Catwoman, Perfect Stranger, Things We Lost In the Fire, Frankie and Alice or Dark Tide that can’t open well or can’t get distribution, it makes executives think twice about investing $15 or $20 million into the budget of a film featuring another black actress in a lead role. That may not be a lot of money to Ms. Berry, but to a small very creative filmmaker and a very talented actress, it could be the breakthrough project that opens doors for them.

When a Halle Berry movie fails, it hurts many smaller black female filmmakers. Many sistas have great films touring the festivals and are deserving of distribution. But thanks to Things we Lost in the Fire not being able to pick up an audience and the one-woman disaster Frankie and Alice, not even getting out of the gate, those small independent films aren’t going to get a chance to get picked up for distribution or an opportunity to find an audience.

And when a Halle Berry project like Catwoman goes into production and fails the impact is like an EARTHQUAKE. Those Black fantasy, and science fiction movies brothers and sisters clamor for? DEAD BEFORE THEY’RE EVEN PROPOSED. You will NEVER see a Black Buffy the Vampire Slayer type movie, Xena: Warrior Princess type movie, EVER. Why? Hollywood put up $ 160 million on Catwoman and came back with a LOSS that BROKE THE BANK. Hollywood was once burned on Homeboys in Outer Space and Mercy Pont, twice burned Pluto Nash, three times burned by Catwoman. Now studio executives won’t even consider a fantasy or sci-fi project with a black lead. Sad shame, because I know there’s a market for an African-American fantasy/Sci-fi film. If they had the right story it could be a blockbuster.

Ultimately, when Halle Berry’s projects fail at the box office it KILLS several other Black film projects in development. When one black movie fails, two more others don’t get distribution. Three more don’t get financing. Five screenplays by black writers that were under consideration don’t get a greenlight. Ten more don’t get optioned.

Sure Halle won the Oscar, but in her current role of A-list superstar she’s killing the black film industry. Worse, she doesn’t see the domino effect her poor business decisions have on others. Every bad movie she stars in keeps several good ones from making it to market. It keeps other talented sistas out of work. And it keeps black audiences from getting quality films.


  1. Halle has a soft screen presence that gets attention. It doesn't demand attention. People will look, comment on her beauty, and move on. Her presence and acting doesn't emit that wow factor.

    Black Cinema existed before Halle came along. She doesn't have that much power to have that kind of effect. She is seen as a beautiful icon who made history. That's it. She is not concerned about black cinema. Halle is only concerned with HER status in hollywood as the most prominent black actress.

    There are enough talented famous and non famous black filmmakers out there who can finance their own stuff. I don't understand why black people don't do this. I live on little money, yet I financed, wrote and starred in a short film that won Best Thriller at a local film festival here in LA.

    Halle is not responsible for the success of black cinema. She does not go out of her way to do "black movies" anymore either, and I am not faulting her for this. She doesn't want to be boxed, and that's a good thing.

    I know there are great black writers out there who write scripts, sell them, only to have the studio execs cast only white people in them. Black people should write and finance and distribute their own stuff. We may not get the results we want in this generation but it will set up the next generation to have it easier.

  2. Anonymous,

    When one Black person screws up it has an impact on all others. This is the reflexive property of instutional racism in America.

    As a Black Man I can't see Halle as an individual. And you shouldn't see yourself as an individual. The actions of one Black person impacts the group.

    Black cinema may have existed before Halle and it will But she is the leading Black actress. And the projects she chooses can directly effect the work that other actresses get. If she fails, those ladies wind up stranded in B-films, direct-to-video and wind up with their careers stalled.

    You really underestimate how much money is out there for Black films. Just because you were able to finance a short film is great.

    But it takes $20-$40 million to produce a feature-length film. With 98% of Black dollars in Non-Black hands it's next to impossible to raise that kind of capital.

    Your film won best thriller at a local film festival. But if you tried to gain wider distribution for your film like DVD or even showing at a local theater, you'd feel the impact of Halle Berry on you. Most distributors and theater owners would tell you about her failed films and how they don't want to take a loss on yours because it's in the same category as hers. Moreover, you'd feel her impact if you tried to get a greenlight for a project you were trying to pitch.

    While Halle is not responsible for the success of Black cinema, her actions indirectly effect others further down the line.

    Halle doesn't want to be boxed, but she's being boxed by White Supremacists. The racists in Hollywood have clearly placed her in the jezebel role and the thriller roles all promote her as the lascivious, sexualized woman who is desired by all. And in independent films, they've been placing her in the victimized tragic Mulatto or a crazy lady.

    And her not wanting to do "Black" movies works against her. Those same White Supremacists are not out to give her roles which will allow her to show her range. Black filmmakers are the only ones who will tailor material to Halle and present her with multi-dimensional characters.

    Halle not doing Black movies is a BAD thing. If we don't support each other there won't be anything left for the next generation. Moreover, there won't be anything for them to build on. The last generation has to leave something behind for the next generation to work with. We are all connected to each other and we are all responsible for each other in this world. One man's actions causes another man to react.

    Black people who see themselves as individuals, are the ones who do the most damage to the group. Black people must support each other or we all fall like dominoes in this White Supremacist society. It's clear to me you have a LOT to learn about living in this country.

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