The Oscar-Winning Supporting Role of the Struggling Black Woman

Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball. She is wearing a white muscle tank.

As a so-called cinephile, I have been watching the Oscars as a yearly tradition for as long as I can remember. It is now exactly twenty years since Halle Berry won Best Actress for her role as Leticia Musgrove in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball (2001). Before Halle, all the women I could root for had skin pigment nowhere near mine. I recall the moment Halle won. I felt her tears. I felt her shock. It felt like the beginning of something bigger. Yet a few years later, it felt like nothing. This particular historic moment was quickly swept under the rug and forgotten. Berry’s speech on how the doors were finally opened for women of color was short-lived. 

After all, the Oscars have always had a racist legacy. In 1939, Hattie McDaniel, the first Black woman to win an Oscar for Supporting Actress, for her role as Mammy in Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) – more on this later – was not initially invited to the Academy Awards. When, after much negotiation, she finally received her invitation, McDaniel was not allowed to sit with her white castmates, relegated instead to a segregated table at the back of the room. McDaniel mentioned that she had hoped the win would be a monumental credit to her race. So it saddens me that the Oscars and Black women still have such a fraught history – that Berry and McDaniels’ celebratory moments came to mean nothing even in this present, when Black women remain ignored in favor of their white counterparts. Both women burst through sealed doors — a genuine achievement — and waited for the rest of the party to show up. But no one came. 

Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball. She is wearing a white muscle tank.
Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball (COURTESY: Lee Daniels Entertainment)

74 years after Hattie McDaniel’s win for Best Supporting Actress, Halle Berry remains the only Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Only twenty Black actors have ever won any Academy Award for acting. Nine of those twenty are Black women. Other than Berry, every Black actress’ win – McDaniel; Whoopi Goldberg; Viola Davis; Octavia Spencer; Regina King; Lupita Nyong’o; Jennifer Hudson; and Mo’Nique – has been relegated to the Supporting Actress category. And the performances for which the Academy awarded these women all revolve around Black pain, especially in regard to the perpetuation of Black stereotypes steeped in pain because of racism or systemic oppression.

In Monster’s Ball, Leticia Musgrove’s mentally disabled son is struck by a car and killed. The film follows Leticia’s grief while also following the lead character Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), who has an avoidant relationship with his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger). Leticia is shaken when Sonny commits suicide. Berry and Thornton’s characters bond through their loss. And Berry’s performance is indeed stunning. But it is also knee-deep in a Black woman’s unbridled pain, and nearly half of the film deals with Musgrove’s mournful agony of losing both her son and her husband, who is executed in prison. The film gives us only a few precious scenes in which Musgrove is not overwhelmed by the loss of both figures. 

Viola Davis as Rose Maxon in Fences. She is wearing a dull orange dress while hanging clothes out to dry.
Viola Davis as Rose Maxon in Fences (COURTESY: Paramount Pictures)

We’ve seen this on-screen portrayal of Black women as broken, scorned, and traumatized wives or girlfriends of abusers time and time again. Viola Davis’ Rose Maxson in Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s play, Fences (2016), is one of these women. Rose is married to Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) who (spoiler alert if you also haven’t read the stage play) ends up helping raise Troy’s illegitimate child from a mistress with whom he cheated on Rose. The adultery storyline is a little more layered in the film version than in the play, but the pain that Davis exudes reminds me of Berry’s performance in Monsters Ball. Both performances demonstrate how Black women must shoulder the pain rooted in their husbands and their husbands’ needs.

These one-sided roles elucidate the lack of roles available to Black women, as well as the consistency of their physical and emotional labor both off- and on-screen. With performances like Octavia Spencer‘s Minny Jackson in Tate Taylor’s The Help (2011), the portrayal of the Black housewife blends into the portrayal of “the mammy” or “maid.” The Mammy image is linked to childcare and domestic service stereotypes rooted in slavery: Spencer’s Minny is a sass-talking, assertive maid who doesn’t burn her chicken (I hate this line but I include it here because of my love for Octavia Spencer). One often-unaddressed detail from Minny’s story is that she’s being abused by her husband. By the end of The Help, Minny ends up leaving him, and her story is wrapped up with a neat bow.

One of the glaring issues with Monsters Ball, The Help, and even Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (2013) are narratives that centralize white people. How much deeper could we have gotten into Leticia Musgrove had her story not been intertwined with Hank Grotowski’s? Did we need Brad Pitt‘s character in 12 Years a Slave? And almost all of The Help‘s running time is white-centered, with struggling Black women hanging on by the tails. De-centering white narratives and voices in these films and others like them would enable richer storytelling possibilities for their Black women characters, and would certainly allow these characters’ stories to move past surface-level stereotypes.

Mo’Nique as Mary Lee Johnston in Precious (COURTESY: Lionsgate Films)

There is also the caricature of funny or angry fat Black women – especially dark-skinned woman – who play a supporting role and are seen as aggressive or overly buoyant. (I use the term “fat” because, as a fat Black woman writing this, it’s not a bad word, nor do use it to dishonor or shame these women’s bodies.) These caricatures often lean on another stereotype, that of the angry or boastful Black woman. Additional stereotypes include Black women who love food through their struggles (Octavia Spencer in The Help again, Mo’Nique in Lee Daniels’ Precious [2009]); or who are unattractive because they are fat (Jennifer Hudson in Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls [2006] – the weight her character has gained due to pregnancy is meant to be unappealing); or whose size is comic relief (Whoopi Goldberg, also definitely representing dark-skinned Black women on screen, in Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990).

These representations remind me of the word “support,” and what it really means when the context is Black women always portrayed as caricatures, as one-dimensional, as stereotypes. Supporting something means holding part or all of the needed weight: support does the heavy lifting, often without recognition. The supporting role holds up the lead. When you think of Dreamgirls, who do you think of first? When you think of The Help, which character sticks out the most, with an iconic line that the whole audience went home repeating? These films leaned on their Black actresses after giving them supporting roles, roles that stereotyped the Black woman’s experience, when they should have centered them. The Black woman’s experience is far brighter, livelier, and fuller than what their best-known portrayers have been handed.

I have a slight bias toward both Regina King and Lupita Nyong’o: I think they are two of the best Black actresses of all time, alongside Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Regina King’s performance as Sharon Rivers in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) was steeped in the subtle ferocity of maternal protection, and the film allows itself to sit with Rivers’ vulnerability and tenderness, ultimately sharing a side of Black women that we do not see portrayed often.

I think of the opposite when it comes to Lupita’s portrayal of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. For Black women, there is no room for softness. There is only pain. And it is tiring. I feel myself disconnecting as I write about Lupita in 12 Years a Slave. I love her. I love her acting. I love Steve McQueen. But I do not want to talk more about 12 Years a Slave. You can find another article about that.

Ruth Negga as Clare Kendry in Passing (COURTESY: Netflix)

The absence of roles for Black women and not marred in pain or crude caricatures has been a consistent conversation amongst Black film critics. However, while this issue hasn’t disappeared, it also highlights a related problem: the loads of films with Black female leads that have been ignored and dismissed. Angela Bassett, in a 2019 interview with Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live, was asked if she ever felt robbed of an Oscar win. Bassett responded that she felt hurt by her loss to Holly Hunter, who won for her role in Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and referred to Hunter’s character as “the mute.” Not to mock disabilities or trauma-based speech impairments or disorders, but the Academy’s choice to award to Hunter over Bassett’s critically lauded performance in Brian Gibson’s What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993) remains astonishing. I make this comparison not to pit women against each other, but to ask what Black women have to do in order to win the Oscar for Best Actress. Bassett and Hunter are only one example of Black actresses not being afforded the quiet, slow-burn roles that white actresses so often recieve. 

After the Academy ignored both Ruth Negga’s and Tessa Thompson’s performances in Rebecca Hall’s Passing (2021) I wonder whether Negga or Thompson would have been nominated if only they had struggled more? If, like the Black women before them who were lucky enough to receive acting nominations, their tears, pain, and anguish had been less nuanced – or if their roles had been broader, more obnoxious even, than the Black pain of passing as a white woman? What do Black women need to do for the Academy to see them? Or do we simply have to wait another twenty years to win again?

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