Another Feel Good Film On Race? A Critique of Monster's Ball by Acacia Reed
Halle Berry made history during the 74th annual Oscars, for her role in Monster's Ball, becoming the first African-American woman to take home a leading-actress award. She plays a widow, Leticia, whose husband, Lawrence (Sean Combs, was executed by racist prison guard Hank (Billy Bob Thornton). She later falls in love with her husband's executioner. The filmmakers attempted an inspirational piece in which a Black woman oppressed by racism could love a reformed racist, but in doing so they had to de-spine the Black characters - which served to discredit the film as a whole. In her emotional acceptance speech, Berry mentioned she was accepting the award for all the "nameless, faceless women of color." Yet what does this movie say to those women of color?
Resignation to injustice runs deep through all the African-American characters in the movie, illustrated best when they allow Hank to keep his place above them. For instance, Leticia's husband doesn't demand a last phone call with his son. In fact, he accepts this punishment as his due, telling his son in an earlier visit, "I'm a bad man." After Hank's son, Sonny, botches Lawrence's execution, Hank calls a Black colleague "n..." for holding him back from beating his own son. To this, the Black officer responds with a stern, "Yes, sir." Later on, Hank uses a gun to run two Black children off his yard who were there at his son's invitation. The children's father (Mos Def) is sure to show deference while admonishing Hank, by capping his criticism with, "I think you heard me sir!" With these weak reprimands, these Black characters might as well say, "I know you're going to step on me, but please don't do it so hard."
Now Hank has grown up in a racist environment. His father was a corrections officer as is he, and is overtly racist. Initially, Hank seems resigned to keeping the tradition alive by bringing his son into the prison system. But it is not until Sonny, (Heath Ledger) chooses to take his own life instead of continuing the family tradition, that Hank is prompted to take his first steps toward a new life.
When Hank steps outside that role, he is unsure of how to proceed and the downtrodden Blacks in the movie also are willing to accept any morsels of repentance. When Hank seeks out his neighbor to fix his truck, the same neighbor whose sons Hank had threatened with a gun, Hank doesn't say, "I'll pay your sons to wash my truck," or better yet, "I'm sorry that I came at your sons with a gun." But instead utters the words, "...could you have those boys of yours wash and wax it [his truck]..." His Black neighbor never challenges him and as a result, Hank does not have to deal with his latent racism.
Yet he's more proactive with Leticia, whom he encounters on the side of the road. He takes her dying son to the hospital and, in gratitude or desperation; she later throws herself at the one man that treats her decently in the film. "Make me feel, go..ood!" she says to Hank in a drunken stupor, while tearing at her clothes and engaging in a sex-scene worthy of any porn flick. Hank, now "in lust," gives her a truck and even names a gas station after her. But his efforts to win Leticia are sidetracked, when his father insults Leticia with, "He [Hank] ain't a man, till he spilt dark cocoa." Then Hank, to prove his commitment to Leticia, condemns his father to spend the rest of his days in a nursing home.
Still, Hank never has to address the effects of his father's racism because, for better or worse, Leticia cannot afford to hold onto her house and moves in with Hank. This begs the question: if Leticia didn't, earlier in the film, lose her dilapidated car or have no family or friends to speak of, would she have been as willing to accept Hank's gifts or even move into his house after a one-month courtship?
Furthermore, in taking away Leticia's power of self-determination, she is bereft of a platform to force Hank to tackle his failings. When she discovers Hank's failure to tell her the part he played in her husband's death, she has a private emotional release but keeps her discovery to herself. In an earlier scene, he tenderly says, "I'm going to take care of you," and she quietly responds with, "Good, because I need to be taken care of."
I'm sure the filmmakers didn't think their contrived piece about overcoming racism would do a greater disservice to their agenda. By having Hank's path to reformation eased by browbeaten Black characters, they portrayed Blacks as not only tolerant of injustice but also incapable of redressing offenses made against them. Because Hank is never forced to tackle his entrenched racism, it's highly improbable that he has learned to treat Blacks as equals.
At the end of the film, when Leticia meekly opens her mouth for Hank to spoon-feed her chocolate ice cream, you wonder will the "nameless, faceless women of color" also accept peace without justice?
Acacia Reed is Managing Editor of the Policy Action Network/Electronic Policy Network, a project of The American Prospect magazine. Acacia Reed can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: This article first appeared at Venuszine
Wednesday, May 1, 2002