By John H. Foote
When Halle Berry won a much-deserved Academy Award for her searing performance in the incendiary drama Monster’s Ball, she became the first black woman honoured with an Oscar in a leading role. Since 1927, not a single black actress had ever won an Academy Award for Best Actress, and shockingly, no black actress has won the Oscar for leading actress since.
Rewatching Monster’s Ball nearly 20 years after its release, I was surprised at how relevant the film is today in this hate fueled world. Hatred exists, hatred is passed from generation to generation, and it takes a brave man to break that vile cycle.
Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is a stern, but respected guard at the local maximum-security prison, where his father Buck (Peter Boyle) and his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger) are employed. Hank and Sonny work together on death row, handling the men days before and up to moments before their execution. A by the book man, Hank wants to give the convicted men their dignity in their last hours, white or black.
A terrible racist, Hank despises black people, not a big surprise in the America South, nor given his hateful father, who liberally uses that disgusting “n” word.
Hank and Sonny are nothing alike, Sonny befriending two black children who Hank runs off the property, firing a gun into the air to scare the children. They visit the same hooker, Sonny treating her with grave respect, offering her a drink, thanking her when he is finished, and when Sonny vomits walking a man to the electric chair, Hank is furious, slapping his son, eventually attempting to throw his son out. Grabbing his gun, Sonny attacks Hank but shockingly kills himself right in the living room, as his racist father and grandfather watch.
After resigning from the prison, Hank encounters a pretty black waitress, Leticia (Halle Berry), who he knows from the diner he frequents, on the side of the road, her overweight son on the ground having been struck by a car. So many things happen after Hank meets her on the road that night. The boy dies at the hospital, leaving Leticia to crumple into Hank’s arms, sobbing, close to hysterics. He encounters again walking to work, picks her up and offers a ride home one night. She invites him in, and they drink on her couch, with Leticia finally offering herself to Hank to “feel good”, to beat back the terrible pain she feels in losing her son.
She is no angel, she berated his obesity, beat him, and yes, emotionally abused him, yet at this moment she needs a connection with another human being.
Hank and Leticia make hard violent love, forgetting their grief, their pain as they make primal love with each other forging a bond. From that moment on, despite his horrid racism they are a couple.
He befriends the children he had previously run off, hires their mechanic father to give Sonny’s truck a tune up, buys a gas station, tends his son’s grave. The hate in Hank evaporates, replaced by a humanity I am sure he might not understand. He gives Leticia his son’s truck, knowing she needs a vehicle, pays the insurance, teaches her to drive stick shift, makes her life easier, and is proud to be seen with her.
Yet when Leticia drops by his home unnoticed with the gift of a handsome cowboy hat she encounters the ugliness that is Buck. Old, diseased, barely able to walk, his hatred has not eased one bit. He insults her, terribly, sending her running from the house, away from Hank, who almost at once understands.
Knowing if he wants any type of relationship with her, and he does, he removes his father and puts him in a home with no remorse, knowing his own hatred comes directly from Buck. He names his gas station Leticia’s even though she will not talk to him, Buck’s vile words hurt her too much.
But evicted from her home, she has no one to call but Hank, who without hesitation moves her into his home, even offering to sleep in a different bedroom, though she wants him with her. As he goes out for ice cream, she finds some drawings by her husband and realizes Hank knew him before executing him.
So much hate in the film, it pulses with it, but at one point, it begins to drain away, replaced by hope. And believe me, you never see it coming.
Directed by Marc Forster, the film is an authentic look at people in the South, which is riddled with hate and teems even today with racism. Forster never rushes, instead, patiently allows the story to just unfold in the hands of his formidable actors. It is though he plunked his cameras down and captured life as it was unfolding. These are characters we feel, we can almost smell them, they are so realistically created.
Thornton gives his finest lead performance here as Hank, the actor brilliantly capturing his arc, his evolution, moving through hatred programmed into him since birth, becoming a decent, good, loving man. With a stern, angry look on his face at the beginning, Thornton is alarming in his intensity, but begins to relax, finding love, grace, forgiving himself for his son’s death, until his face reflects the same hope as Leticia. You can feel the weight of his hatred on him, see it when its lefts. How was Thornton not an Oscar nominee alongside Berry? His final words, and the words that end the film, “we’re going to be ok.” Those words are all she needs to hear.
Halle Berry is a revelation as Leticia, giving herself over to the role heart and soul. Though she takes her son to see her husband on death row, she is unmoved by anything he has to say. Her silence speaks volumes about what his actions must have put her through, what he has done to her. When her obese son is killed she is shocked into visceral grief, throwing herself against the viewing window of the ER, before crumpling into Hanks arms. The much-discussed sex scene between the pair is teeming with primal sexual need, the hunger to be touched, to feel good amidst such despair. The scene is brave, each actor fearless, sending the film into a very different narrative. Berry deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress, a truly deserved honour for her courageous performance.
There are fine supporting performances from Heath Ledger as the doomed Sonny, rightly described by a changed Hank as being “a good kid”.
Peter Boyle, known in the seventies for Joe (1970) and Young Frankenstein (1974), and by the nineties more for his gruff father on TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, a much-loved sitcom. It must have been shocking for modern audiences to see this fine actor as the racist, vile Buck. Filled with simmering hate, he is a rancid man, rotten from the inside, festering like a disease. Ridding himself of his father is the beginning of Hank’s atonement.
Forster creates a film that feels like a seventies film, a character study that places a mirror on society and allows us to see, to learn, to experience. It is a brilliant little film, bolstered tremendously by Thornton and especially Berry.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.