On this day in 1966, Halle Berry was born in Cleveland, the daughter of an Air Force serviceman and nurse. Thirty six years later, she became the first—and remains the only—African American woman to win the Best Actress Academy Award, for her critically acclaimed role in “Monster’s Ball.” Who remembers her legendary, show-stopping acceptance speech? “This moment is so much bigger than me,” she declared at the Oscars, sobbing. “This is for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance tonight because this door has been opened.”
As the daughter of an interracial couple, Berry struggled with racism when she attended an all-white high school in the Cleveland suburbs. Berry has said it fueled her resolve to succeed. She became the queen of extracurricular activities—head cheerleader, class president, and newspaper editor—and a beauty pageant queen (Miss Teen Ohio, Miss Teen U.S.A., and a runner-up in the 1985 Miss U.S.A. competition).
By the 1990’s, Berry made her way to Hollywood, scoring roles in shows like “Knot’s Landing” and “A Different World.” Her big break came in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991), and right after, opposite Eddie Murphy in “Boomerang.” In 1998, she produced and starred in what she called her “dream role” as Dorothy Dandridge, the first black actress nominated for an Academy Award. That HBO mini series won Berry a Golden Globe and Emmy Award.
Berry recently expressed disappointment about the persistent lack of black actresses in leading film roles, despite her Oscar win. “I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing, she said in a July 2017 interview. “It inspired me to try to get involved in other ways, which is why I want to start directing. I want to start producing more. I want to start making more opportunities for people of color. I have conversations more deeply with Academy members, and I’m trying to figure out how to help and add more diversity into the Academy.”