When Halle Berry left her home state of Ohio back in the late '80s with hopes of pursuing acting in New York City, her intention was never to make history or be "the first." She simply just wanted to be.
"[I was] trying to have agency, and find quality, and find a place where I could have a voice and I could be heard and I could be seen," she tells me over the phone.
However, Berry had already made her mark when she became the first Black woman to ever represent the United States in the 1986 Miss World pageant.
Despite already breaking one glass ceiling, on-screen opportunities didn't necessarily come easy for the star when she first landed in the big city — she has shared that she once lived in a homeless shelter — perhaps because she was destined to break a few more.
Whenever Berry did book a new gig, however, she consistently nailed it, from her first major breakout role as Natalie in the 1991 flick Strictly Business to playing the complicated character Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball back in the early aughts, a role that would prove to take her career to the next level.
When I think back to Mar. 24, 2002, I still have vivid memories of that night. My mother (the actress' number one fan, literally) made sure dinner was cooked, eaten, and the kitchen was cleaned before red carpet coverage of the 74th Academy Awards began. Her favorite celebrity was nominated for an award that night after all, and she just knew Berry was going to win.
The minute the actress stepped out in that unforgettable Elie Saab gown, my mom nearly fell off the couch, as she went on and on in Jamaican patois about how nice Berry looked for the special occasion.
Then the moment happened as fellow actor Russell Crowe opened up the envelope and called the mother of two's name.
With tears flooding her eyes, Berry stood upon the Oscars stage as she made history, once again, as the first-ever African American woman to take home the award for Best Actress. My mom, too, was in hysterics.
The actress laughs softly as I tell her the story, and is clearly moved by my mother's devotion. "I feel like I touched someone I didn't even know in such a profound way," she tells me. "Those are the moments that it's really all about, to hear wonderful stories like that."
While I already knew Berry thought of her Oscar award as a win for all Black women, that statement alone made it even clearer that she always understood that moment to be much bigger than herself.
However, she's not so sure it created the shift Hollywood so badly needed in the early 2000s — and still needs almost 20 years later. Yet, Berry remains an optimist.
"The heartbreak for me is I'm still the only one," she says. "But I think this year, I am feeling like Viola Davis will be standing next to me — she damn well should be — so I will no longer be alone, and hopefully that will further open that door."
Berry isn't waiting on the industry to make the right moves — she's taking things into her own hands to ensure there's a pathway to success for the women who come after her. That's why she signed on to be a part of the Jane Walker by Johnny Walker First Woman Campaign, alongside women like Katie Couric and Salt-N-Pepa, to provide $10,000 in funding for 15 groundbreaking women-owned businesses across the country.
"It's a huge honor, because I do know what it takes to be the first, and I know the kind of dedication and focus and tenacity one has to have," she explains. "You're usually breaking down some barrier, and I know what it takes to do that."
When it comes to the women she's sharing the stage with for this project, Berry exudes nothing but bliss when speaking of her counterparts. "Katie Couric is one of my heroes," she tells me, clearly beaming through the phone. "I wanted to be a journalist before I became an actress, and she is someone that I deeply, deeply admire."
As for the rap duo, Berry shares that they take her back to her roots. "I grew up with Salt-N-Pepa, they were women that I looked to when I was about their age and growing," she says. "I saw women in the rap game, in the music industry, really finding their voice and coming into their own, and that was really, really inspiring."
While Berry has played a number of iconic roles in front of the camera, she shares with me her next evolution in the film industry will be focused on the work behind it. She's moving into the role of director, the next logical step in her mission of making space for more talent to soar.
"We have to direct, we have to write, we have to produce, we have to have studios," she shares. "It's about realizing that we're evolving as a society, and our movies and our art that we produce has to reflect the world in which we live. The only way we do that is to allow people — men and women of color — to be in those positions to create those stories that are important to a large segment of the population."
It's been nearly two decades since Berry's Oscar win, and she's not putting any pressure on herself when it comes to picking up a second trophy.
The star's only focus at the moment, aside from adding "director" to her repertoire, is to continue to grow on her own terms and push herself to take on roles she's yet to conquer — in front of or behind the camera.
"I try to remind myself that every year, if I don't win an Oscar it doesn't mean I'm not talented," she shares. "It doesn't mean that I have to put undue pressure on myself to recreate that moment. Some of these moments are once in a lifetime moments, they can't be recreated."
She does admit, however, that her historic win has helped her continue to aim high, whether or not accolades and awards follow.
"The goal is to just continue to work on things I love that inspire me and taking those risks," she says. "That's how you get to those great moments."
Her extraordinary career, which has spanned over three decades, is a clear indication of just that.
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