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Oscars Past: 2002, That Magical Night When Halle Berry Won The Oscar — And The Heartbreak of What Happened Next

Actress Halle Berry smiles in joy as she hoists up the Best Actress Oscar in her left hand for the audience to see. Standing off to the side, applauding, is actor Russell Crowe, who presented the award to her.
Halle Berry makes history as she accepts the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in "Monster's Ball." Applauding her is Russell Crowe, who presented the award.
(Getty Images
Getty Images)
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Halle Berry doesn’t recall making her way to the stage that night in 2002 when she made history, becoming the first — and still only — Black woman to win the Oscar for her leading role in Monster’s Ball.

About this story
  • On the eve of the 95th Academy Awards this Sunday, March 12, in Hollywood, we're looking back at some of the most exciting moments in the history of the Oscars and how they relate to U.S. history.

  • We examined these important turning points in the first season of our podcast And The Oscar Goes To… hosted by Jacqueline Stewart, now the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures director and president.

The shock was evident on her face as her name was announced. Once onstage she shakes with emotion as she struggles to collect herself, repeating again and again, “Oh my God, oh my God” as tears streamed down her face.

She would later recall, “I must've levitated because all of a sudden I was in my seat and then I was on stage… I realized I had an Oscar in my hand… I realized I have to start talking. I have to say something.”

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A memorable speech

Berry said she didn’t have a speech prepared that evening because she didn’t believe she would win. Yet she went on to deliver one of the most memorable Oscar acceptance speeches of all time.

She began by thanking those women of color who blazed a path before her.

“This moment — so much bigger than me,” Berry began. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance, because this door tonight has been opened.”

Listen to the episode

2002: Revisit the historic night when Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win for a leading role

While Michelle Yeoh could make history as the first Asian performer to win as Best Actress for her turn in Everything Everywhere All At Once, many have lamented the lack of a single nomination for a Black actress, despite such eligible films as The Woman King starring Viola Davis, who was considered by many to be a lock for a Oscar nod.

It’s an oversight that reminds many of how much hope there was for a groundswell of change following that ceremony in 2002 that was capped off by Berry’s win.

A night like no other

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That night at the Oscars was like none ever before, or since.

“There was magic in the air,” Whoopie Goldberg, the ceremony host recalled.

There was a sense of change, a sense that the entertainment industry was finally — finally — seeing, recognizing and embracing the powerful contributions of Black artists throughout the years:

After all, on the very same night:

  • Goldberg was hosting her fourth Oscars, and was Academy Award royalty in her own right: She won the trophy for best supporting actress for Ghost, becoming only the second Black performer to do so, after Hattie McDaniel for her controversial role in Gone With the Wind.
  • Acting legend Sidney Poitier, who became the first Black man to win for Best Actor, for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, was being recognized with a lifetime achievement Oscar for his pioneering work on and off the screen.
  • Both Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Will Smith (Ali) were nominated in the best actor category, and Washington would go on to win. 

From this high note to #OscarsSoWhite

A man in a tuxedo and a woman in an elegant sheer gown with embroidered appliques hold gold Oscar statuettes.
Best Actor and Actress winners Halle Berry and Denzel Washington pose with their awards backstage during the 74th Academy Awards in 2002.
(Frederick M. Brown
Getty Images)

The next morning, newspapers and websites bannered photos of Washington in his sleek tuxedo and Berry in that jaw-dropping gown by Elie Saab, beaming as they held their respective trophies.

Thirteen years later, though, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite would be trending.

As Stewart notes in the podcast, the Oscars are not just about what takes place onscreen, but it’s also about what is happening behind the scenes in Hollywood, including “the ways that films have been made, the ways films have been distributed and the ways that people watch and appreciate films.”

Berry told Stewart that three weeks after her big win, she found herself looking for work.

You might rightfully imagine that every filmmaker, director and casting agent in Hollywood would have flocked to Berry’s doorstep after her big night, hoping to attach the Oscar winner to their latest project.

But that’s not what happened.

Waiting for scripts that didn't come

Years later, Berry would say it was heartbreaking: “...the script truck didn't back up to my house and dump off all these great roles for… ‘the leading lady, Oscar winner,’ there just were no scripts to support that.”

Rita Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, has also talked about the letdown she had after winning an Oscar for supporting actress for West Side Story — the first Latina to win — and then continuing to be offered stereotypical roles for non-white actors.

And it wasn't just a problem for women of color. Berry told Stewart she believes Poitier suffered the same indignity after his win: "I would say that was also the case with Sidney Poitier when he won, you know, the plethora of roles that he should have been afforded, and he should have been able to play didn't exist for him, either."

Berry said she decided she would simply create a new role to play. The plotline? “My battle to find work that supported my win.”

“I would have to continue the same fight that I had to win that award,” she told Stewart, adding:

“I would have to stay on that same path of trying to convince people that I could play certain roles that people thought I couldn't play… I would also have to try to convince producers and writers and directors, if there were roles that were written for a man or for a white woman to think about making them a Black woman.”

What is different today

Berry said that today, 20 years later, she can point to change.

“There's a plethora of stories written today because we have more Black screenwriters, we have more female writers, we have more Black directors, both male and female, we have more Black producers, both male and female working within the industry that are singularly focused on creating these opportunities for people of color and for Black people.”

Among those signs of change, she landed a deal with Netflix, to produce and star in multiple projects, starting with her directorial debut, 2020’s Bruised.

That deal reflects Berry’s desire “to play diverse characters and not be pigeonholed and not always play the same character over and over,”

I was blown away. I got to see it for the first time in its entirety, with my daughter.
— Halle Berry, on watching her 2002 speech with her daughter

Berry said that years later, she was able to relive the glorious moment of her Oscar win when she visited the Academy Museum with her daughter, Nahla.

“I was blown away,” Berry recalled about seeing the speech play out at the museum. “I got to see it for the first time in its entirety, with my daughter. She was very moved by the fact that I was so moved and I think that's why she cried because at the end she turned to me and she was crying and I was crying.”

Her daughter had one question for her mom: Why were you so emotional?

It was an opportunity for mother and daughter to speak about the magnitude of the moment.

“She was born in 2008 when Barack Obama became president… She just couldn't understand that it had taken 74 years for someone [who looks like me] to win that award.”

About the podcast episode that inspired this story
  • This episode was written and produced by Antonia Cereijido, who was also the editor on the series.

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