Reference Entry

Berry, Halle Maria

Shelle Sumners

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Berry, Halle Maria

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Halle Maria Berry was born on August 14, 1968, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father, Jerome, was an African American hospital attendant and her mother, Judith, was a white psychiatric nurse. When Berry was four years old her parents divorced and her mother was left to raise Halle and her older sister alone. Initially they lived in a predominantly black area of inner-city Cleveland, but by the time Berry was a teenager her mother had moved the family to the suburbs, where Berry attended Bedford High School. She felt she stood out as a racial minority in her mostly-white school, and was determined to participate fully in school activities. She became a cheerleader, an editor of the school newspaper, and class president. Berry was voted queen of the prom, but because of suspected voting irregularities had to share the title with a white student.At age seventeen Berry represented the state of Ohio and became the 1985 Miss Teen All-American. She was the first runner-up in the 1986 Miss USA Pageant and became the first African American to enter the Miss World competition. She then turned to modeling to pay for a brief period of college study in broadcast journalism, after which she moved to Chicago and New York to pursue an acting career.In 1989 Berry was cast as an aspiring fashion model in the television comedy series Living Dolls. Although the show was short-lived, film director Spike Lee noticed Berry and hired her to play a crack addict in his 1991 film Jungle Fever. Berry impressed the cast and crew with her interest in filmmaking and her commitment to creating an authentic character by “living” the role as much as possible. To achieve this she neglected her personal hygiene and accompanied police officers on visits to actual crack houses.Berry followed this professional breakthrough with major film roles in The Last Boy Scout (1991), with Damon Wayans and Bruce Willis, Boomerang (1992), with Eddie Murphy, and Losing Isaiah (1995), with Jessica Lange. Although her professional star continued to rise, these were personally difficult years for Berry. Her 1993 marriage to Atlanta Braves baseball player David Justice ended after only three years. She busied herself with work as a volunteer for the National Breast Cancer Coalition and visited the U.S. troops in Sarajevo. In 1998 Berry was named “Artist of the Year” by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, in recognition of her contributions to national and international social issues.In 1999 Berry served as executive producer and starred in the film biography Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. She won both Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her portrayal of the elegant and gifted African American actress who struggled tragically against racism in 1950s Hollywood. In 2000 Berry starred in the hugely popular X-Men, as the Marvel Comics superhero Storm, whose mutant abilities enable her to manipulate the weather. Berry made the controversial decision to appear topless in the 2001 action thriller Swordfish; she was very well paid for what some thought to be gratuitous exposure, and admitted that she hoped to use the money to finance more meaningful projects.The film role of Letitia, the mother and waitress struggling with grief, poverty, and despair in Monster's Ball (2001) put Berry's acting ability to the ultimate test. She met the challenge with a ferocity and delicacy that led to an Academy Award nomination. On an Oscar night in which African American Denzel Washington won the award for best actor and African American film legend Sidney Poitier was recognized with an honorary award, Berry was named “Best Actress in a Motion Picture.” In her acceptance speech she said, “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll … and it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance, because the door tonight has been opened.”

Reference Entry.  663 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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