Warning: Spoilers below.
Applying The Oppositional Gaze To Monster's Ball
In the July 1, 2002 issue of Newsweek, actress Angela Bassett was asked why, although she hadn't had a leading role in nearly four years, she had turned down the chance to play Laticia, the main character in Monster's Ball, for which Halle Berry won an Oscar.
"It's about character, darling," she replied, and then went on to describe the role as "demeaning" and serving as a "prostitute" to the white male-dominated Hollywood circle. Although she said she wasn't aiming the comments at Berry, there was certainly an edge in her words that suggested anger at the Academy for their selection. Was Ms. Bassett right in her analysis of the role in Monster's Ball?
In Bell Hooks' article, "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators", she describes the oppositional gaze as the right to critically analyze film from a black woman's perspective, and to reject perspectives outside of this viewpoint as irrelevant to her own. The gaze is a largely self-validating critcism, but in a large way it is empowering to a group who is largely ignored by the mainstream media.
I must admit, the first time I watched Monster's Ball in the theater, I was impressed with its sparse theatrics, but was left a little flustered by the plot. In it, Halle Berry plays the wife of a death row inmate (Puff Daddy in an unexpectedly reserved performance) who is trying to raise her morbidly obese 12-year-old son. Billy Bob Thornton plays a corrections officer who helps put her husband to death. After the execution and her son's untimely death, circumstances conspire to bring Berry and Thornton together into a relationship. From the bright-eyed bushy-tailed white male perspective, the film is a touching excerpt of overcoming racial prejudice, loss, and existence.
Now for the hard truth: this is possibly one of the most racist films ever made.
The first and most obvious criticism to this film is that it could easily have been set in 1962 as 2002. The only telltale signs are the modern cars and technology visible onscreen. The movie (set in relatively rural Georgia) never bothers to allow its characters to develop into modern people, only vague shadows. In Hooks' article, she brings up a common feminist complaint in movies, that women are only used to move along the narrative, and are rarely so empowered as to move along with the narrative. Monster's Ball takes full advantage of this fact, choosing to focus more on Thornton's loss of his own son rather than Berry herself.
In the movie, Berry is evicted from her home for failure to make rent. And despite the obvious presence of black males throughout the movie (the sheriff who evicts her, Mos Def's pointless cameo) Berry apparently has no friends or family in the area who can help her move her stuff somewhere else. Instead, she relies on Thornton to help her move into his house. Soon, they begin a sexual relationship, but here, another major difference between the white male perspective and black female spectatorship emerges. In previous Oscar-nominated roles where the character was defined by her sexuality (The Apartment, Leaving Las Vegas, Pretty Woman) the women were used as much for on-screen objectification as they were for in-movie appreciation. Here we see sex as a way to arouse the audience, and even though these roles are literal prostitutes, white males feel they are merely their sexual equals, not judging their craft or their motivations. In Monster's Ball, we have a completely different dynamic. Here, Halle is not a literal prostitute, but Thornton showers her with gifts after he starts his relationship with her, even though he shows racist tendencies (both in his stereotypically backwoods father played by Peter Boyle, and his treatment of a black corrections officer) before meeting her. This relationship is not defined by its eroticism. Instead, it shows a white man empowering himself through control of a vulnerable woman. This is even more demeaning than sex as business; here we sex as slavery and sex as control.
Perhaps a third and final point will sink this home. At the beginning of the film, we have a grieving (and very attractive) wife and a racist (and rather average) corrections officer. By the end of the picture, the officer has all but laid claim to the wife and her sexual prowess and has essentially brought her into his house as an inferior to be propped up by him. This is the uplifting racial enlightenment of the 21st century? Slave-master dynamics amidst weepy histrionics? Even if you feel that this is perhaps a harsh judgment of the film, there is little arguing about the facts of the film itself. Now compare this judgment to some of the national reviews given to this picture:
A great film. Considers genuine personalities and extreme feelings, and lingers in the mind, holding some kind of spell over us long after it has ended.
It's not a polemic on the death penalty, race relations or family dynamics. It's a character study that really sticks with you.
Disturbing, provocative and, finally, tentatively encouraging, Monster's Ball brings subtlety and quiet conviction to the kind of story routinely exploited on the big screen.
It's almost as if they were watching a totally separate movie.
When Angela Basset talks about refusing to prostitute herself for this role, she isn't talking about the role itself. She is making a point of fact that this role indeed is Oscar material - but for all of the wrong reasons. Berry made nearly $1 million for the picture, and her Oscar guaranteed her a role in the new James Bond film Die Another Day, as well as other major studio roles in the years ahead. Did Berry sell out her principles for a role by lying to herself about its true motivations and objectives? If you sit down to watch this - for the first time or again - try to imagine it from a black woman's perspective. It is simply an outrageous and emasculating film, disguised as an elegant character study. Shame on Ms. Berry for ensuring that this type of role will linger on long into the future, and shame on Hollywood for propagating such offensive and immature roles for black women to win ham-fisted golden statuettes at the expense of their people and their pride.