Fifteen years ago, Halle Berry made history as the first African American woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. A year and a half before her Oscar win, Halle Berry was the keynote speaker for a two-day conference at Princeton, “Imitating Life: Women, Race, and Film, 1932-2000.” We’ve recently digitized the video of her address.
The conference, held in September 2000, focused on the themes in Fannie Hurst’s 1932 book on biracial friendship, Imitation of Life, and its later film adaptations. Professor Nell Painter introduced Berry at the conference (00:00:12).
In the beginning of her talk (00:06:10), Berry said that the invitation from Princeton had meant a lot to her. While recovering from a head injury sustained in a car accident earlier that year, Berry faced criminal charges for leaving the scene. Berry has said she has no memory of the crash. Recalling reading the letter from Princeton inviting her to speak, Berry welled with emotion and said, “That letter reminded me of who I really was. I wasn’t this person that the media was making me out to be. It reminded me that I was a woman of great substance, that had worked really hard at my craft, that had become someone that I and my community could be proud of. It had to be true because Princeton was asking me to come speak!”
Berry organized the first section of her lecture on the film industry around five key elements for success for black women in film: the ability to be a good loser, an innate drive, talent alongside the ability to recognize what one’s talent really is (“I cannot sing!”), integrity, and courage. She then moved on to talk about what makes the film industry especially difficult for black women, taking the audience through several stories behind her filmography, the pressures she felt within and outside the African American community, and her efforts to prove herself in the entertainment world. From being “too pretty” to not being “black enough,” Berry detailed a career under special public scrutiny. Following the lecture, Berry took a variety of questions from the audience about race in the film industry and more generally about a career in acting (00:37:25).
Broadcast Center Recordings (AC062)
Office of Communications Records (AC168)