Halle Berry: Halle-lujah!
As beautiful as she is outspoken, the actress--who made her mark in Jungle Fever, Boomerang and TV's "Queen"--lets fly on everything from making The Flintstones and her career advice for Spike Lee, to competing for roles with Winona, Julia and Marisa, and her marriage to Atlanta Braves ball player David Justice.
Halle Berry crosses the dining lounge toward our table at the Bel Age Hotel one sultry afternoon and shreds my heart. Wrapped in a brief crocheted number that growls "sex kitten" and sets off her devastating air of innocence while highlighting her spectacular cafe au lait coloring, she makes heads swivel. Petite but about as fragile as a Humvee, she smiles slowly, extends her hand and quietly introduces herself.
Judging by the reactions of other diners in the room, I'm not the only one who was impressed by her turns as the crackhead in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, as the doll who wallops Eddie Murphy in Boomerang, as the doomed stripper in The Last Boy Scout, and as Alex Haley's racially mixed grandmother in the highly-rated TV miniseries "Queen". Okay, I took a pass on catching her in Strictly Business or more recent films like Father Hood and The Program, but this anyone could catch instantly: not for nothing did she win the prehistoric sexpot role originally intended for Sharon Stone in The Flintstones, the live-action movie version of the animated TV series. Not for nothing, either, does she have a deal to star in a Disney-funded movie based on Eden Close, Anita Shreve's erotic American Gothic, which, who knows, could do for her what Basic Instinct did for Stone.
Like Stone, Berry says what's on her mind. At length. In detail. About her past (rocky). About her alleged suicide attempt and nervous breakdown (what, already?). About her career ambitions (watch out Julia, Winona and Whitney). About old boyfriends (dial 911). About the so-called new black cinema (stand back). About her marriage to outspoken Atlanta Braves outfielder David Justice (very new). About working with such movie icons as Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy (duck, you suckers). About the casting couch (whew!). Just another chat over lunch with a breezeway-brained starlet? Guess again.
So, why the heart-shredding I feel at the sight of her? Because I know my Hollywood history well enough to realize that if Berry becomes the major star she shows every indication of deserving to be, it will be against killer odds. Hollywood, fascinated but never quite certain of what "to do" with talented black women--from Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge to Lonette McKee and Diana Ross-- tends to fritter them away.
Berry is obviously well aware of this because she tells me, with a knowing grin, "Directors and producers tend to see me either as the Doris Day of the '90s or else the one to get for Girlz N the Hood III, IV, V and VI. I'm totally not interested in that. I'm soft-spoken, which people in Hollywood sometimes mistake for being weak, vulnerable and fragile. People talk about Jungle Fever, where I played a crack addict and was cussing like a sailor, but they say, 'That was you?' Yeah, that was me. Being from a minority, you become used to the mind-set of having to prove yourself."
But wait a minute. Did I just hear Berry assert her identity while more or less dishing John Singleton, director of Boyz N the Hood, considered one of the beacons of the emerging cinema by and about people of color? Making it clear that she isn't singling out Singleton, she explains, "Look, we black African-Americans, or whatever term is correct, feel like we've reached equality, sometimes, in certain arenas. But filmmaking isn't one of them. 'Black films,' quote-unquote? Black exploitation films, if you ask me. It's not only no different from the Shaft era, it's even worse. The nature of these movies is that they're so violent, they deal with such negative subject matter, we're not willing to pay money to see them. Just turn on the news. Menace II Society? I don't think [moviemakers] realize sometimes the damage they're doing. I don't buy the idea that says you make these movies to show white people. Do they think white people don't know? Does Midamerica go out in droves to see 'black movies'?"
Still, she has, in Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy, worked alongside two of the highest-profile black men in the movies. Each has attracted some of the least flattering press in memory. Can Berry understand why? "I can definitely understand it in Spike Lee's case," she says. "I like him. If you don't know him personally, he can sometimes have a one-track mind, like, he's got his opinion and that's it. People get very put off by that. Once you get to know him and can break down all that stuff he puts up, he really is a nice guy underneath. He puts so many personal issues in his movies, it sometimes gets to be like, 'Oh God, another one of those?' I'm really looking forward to seeing Spike direct something he didn't write, that doesn't encompass his views."
So, knowing Lee as Berry does, what does she think we who don't know him would find surprising about him? "The kind of women he has dated," she answers. "Spike seems too pro-black to me and then he dates these light, bright, almost white-looking women. It's the opposite of what I think he stands for-- or what he says he stands for." When Berry made Jungle Fever, she was romantically unattached. Any fire? "He didn't hit on me, no," she answers, laughing. "I came to that show with the attitude, 'I'm not hittable.' I think he may have picked up on that because he didn't even try."
Murphy, with whom Berry made Boomerang, is "a nice man [but] he's bitter. He got a lot of success real early in his life and maybe he hurt some people along the way, but it was bound to happen. There were serious problems on that movie between Eddie and Paramount, but it wasn't somebody just being a power-hungry prima donna like they made out in the press. He assured me, 'It's not that I'm just being dicked and I don't want to show up. We are having problems on a higher level that you people don't know anything about.' Paramount and Eddie both needed to get their acts together."
Then, with a kittenish grin, she adds, "In Boomerang, when I got to smack him, it was like. . . well, so many women have come up to me and said they just loved that. They wanted to see Eddie smacked." She quickly amends this by saying, "Well, not necessarily Eddie, but that kind of guy. So many women have been treated like that by men that every woman rejoiced in that moment."