Commentary: Do Black women have to get naked for the big awards?

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Andra Day (left) was the first Black woman in 35 years to receive a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture and Halle Berry (right) was the first Black woman to earn an Oscar for Best Actress in Leading Role, and both performances required full nudity and sex scenes. (AP Photos)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

It’s rare that I find myself as the one with the “unpopular opinion,” or saying the sort of controversial,” thing that no one else wants to say- and even when I am that person, it’s even more rare that I’d be the one to voice this publicly.  After all, I was raised by the adages “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all,” and “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”  But here I am, publicly asking this question, “Do Black women have to get naked to win these big awards?”

Now let’s be clear, I thought that Halle Berry did an amazing job in Monster’s Ball (2001) and Andra Day slayed as Lady Day in the United States vs. Billie Holiday, and it would seem the voting members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and Golden Globes agree with me. Berry and Day were groundbreaking when they won Academy Awards and Golden Globe, respectively.  They also happened to be roles where the two had their bodies on display for the camera, featuring major sex scenes.

The passionate love scene between Berry and Billy Bob Thornton is what many people recall as the film’s highlights and is mentioned in reviews of Monster’s Ball to this day.  Berry was the first Black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her role as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball in 2002.  Berry’s performance in Monster’s Ball was noteworthy, but at the time many critics argued that Berry won the award for her boldness to show skin.

“After all this time has [passed], so many want to stand up and applaud Halle. But others say, ‘Isn’t it sad that she had to be the sexual object of a White man? It shows that it’s a [man’s] world, with sexism and racism,’” Soul Food Executive Producer Felicia D. Henderson said, according to a 2002 Chicago Tribune article.

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“This has been a no-win for Halle Berry,”  said Lee Bailey, publisher and executive producer of the Electronic Urban Report, in the Chicago Tribune in 2002. “She is still getting flak from Black folks. It overwhelmed her historic achievement. The role is still a source of irritation. And it’s wrong. There’s a lot of hatin’ going on.”

I thought Day was outstanding, transformative and humanizing in her performance as Holiday.  She was tormented, sexy, authoritative, creative, talented, loving and a boss all at once.  She brought a gravitas and humanity to Holiday that was missing in Diana Ross’ portrayal of Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and audiences began to understand all the famous jazz singer faced and overcame when she performed classic songs such as “Strange Fruit,” which got her in trouble with the United States government.  

First of all Day put in some serious work.  She shined and looked like a pro, particularly having only been in three feature films- with one movie being animated (Cars 3), another where she played a nightclub singer (Marshall) and United States vs. Billie Holiday being her third and most major role.  With such little film experience, Day brought an incredibly complicated character, and real life American icon, to life. 

Day was deserving of the Golden Globe, the first Black woman to receive the award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama in 35 years.  But, when I saw the film after she had already won the award, I couldn’t help but wonder if her nudity, which I felt was solely for the sake of shock value, played a role in her certainly well-earned award.  

Day was excellent, there’s no doubt about it.  I just hate that it {had} to be the role where the actress was very naked that got her the historic win, similarly to Berry’s case some 19 years.

Further the question comes about why nudity is associated with reaching a certain standard of Hollywood or public achievement when it comes to Black women.  

Of course, nudity is not the success ticket for all Black women in the entertainment industry- as was seen in the case of Janet Jackson’s nip slip with Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl in 2004 or Lisa Bonet’s nudity and sex scene in the 1987 film Angel Heart, which was a controversial career move that led to a lot of flak at the time.

Yet, when comparing the two Black women up for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Day and Viola Davis, there’s only one major difference in the outstanding and transformative nature of their roles- Davis didn’t have to get naked. 

My biggest fear in publishing this commentary is that I’ll be perceived as old-school, conservative and even worse, a hater.  I’d like to think I’m none of the above. I’ve even been heard in liberal conversations expressing why it’s a double standard that men can show their chests and nipples without censorship.  

However my personal liberal beliefs don’t cloud my obsession with film, pop culture and trends.  I see what’s being recognized and what’s not.  The fact of the matter is it took 35 years for a Black actress to receive another Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture after Whoopi Goldberg earned the award in 1986 for The Color Purple.  When there have been so many outstanding performances from Black actresses since 1986, including from Davis herself, it’s astonishing that Day is the first in 35 years after bravely and boldly bringing Holiday to life, but also after brazenly getting naked.