Monster's Ball (Dir. Marc Forster) is a film from seven years back, but I got around to watching it only recently. As a lover of films (and as a student of film) I should have watched it a long time ago, especially because of everything the film came to stand for. It was the year the "Oscars went black," as a number of commentators have said. Best Actor for Denzel Washington, Best Actress for Halle Berry (for her role in Monster's Ball), and a gala hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. It was a series of firsts, and impressive ones too. In certain circles, it had been talked about as the year Hollywood finally and fully embraced its treasure trove of African-American talent.
So yes, of course I was expecting a lot from the film. Unfortunately, not only was I underwhelmed, but when I sat back and thought about it after it was over, I found several things about the film and the hype it generated to even be offensive.
To put it very briefly, the following is the sequence of events in the film:
- Hank and Sonny Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton and Heath Ledger, respectively) are correctional officers in the prison where the black prisoner Lawrence (Sean Combs) is going to be executed.
- Sonny befriends the black kids around the home he shares with his father. Hank threatens to shoot the kids.
- Sonny befriends Lawrence, just before his execution. Hank, of course, disapproves. On the day of the execution, Sonny buckles under the horror or having to put a man in the chair. Hank lashes out at him. This worsens their already severely hateful relationship, and Sonny shoots himself dead.
- Hank shows no overt signs of being devastated by his son't death, but his silence is apparently eloquent in this regard. He quits his job, which provokes his racist father Buck (Peter Boyle, who seems to have perfected the art of playing the bigoted father, whether comedically or otherwise) to heap insults upon him. In a sudden change of heart, Hank actually talks to the black kids Sonny was so fond of. Eventually, he also gets acquainted with their father.
- Lawrence's wife Leticia (a very gangly Halle Berry), on the other hand, is in deep trouble. Over the years she has managed to distance herself from Lawrence, and has accepted the eventuality of his execution, but she has a son with health issues to deal with, and an eviction notice on her home. She takes a job at a coffee shop that Hank frequents.
- One night, when Leticia's son gets hit by a car, Hank, after a brief moment of hesitation, takes her and her son to the hospital. Tragically, her son dies. Hank drives her back home. They meet again, and he drives her home one more time. This time she invites him in. They both get drunk, and she shows him the drawings that Lawrence had made when he was in prison. Hank recognises them, and realises that she is Lawrence's wife. He tells her he understands her, because he's lost a son as well. She begs him to make her "feel good," and they have sex.
- Leticia and Hank get together. She buys him a hat and takes it to his home for him, where she is insulted by Buck. She leaves Hank in a fit of rage and tears. Hank, in turn, reacts by moving his father to an old age home.
- Leticia gets evicted from her home and has nowhere to go. She's sitting on the pavement with all the stuff from her home flung all about her. Her wits and her pockets have been stretched to their limit, when Hank, her knight in shining armour, drives up and takes her home.
- At Hank's place, after a few moments of awkwardly keeping their distance from each other, Leticia finally submits to him, saying that she needs someone to take care of her. Hank promises to take care of her, of course.
- Hank steps out to buy ice cream for Leticia. Back at home, she finds the drawings Lawrence had make of Sonny and Hank, and finally realises who Hank really is. She beats herself repeatedly (literally) and weeps.
- Hank returns. They sit at the door, eating ice cream. Leticia doesn't say a word about the drawings. He asks her if she's alright, and she murmurs that she is. He feeds her some ice cream, looks up at the sky and says, "We're going to be alright." The film ends.
The film's biggest claim to seriousness and artistic consideration is that it talks about race relations in southern USA. Like most other Hollywood films that have attempted to do this in the past, this putative consideration of race relations loses itself in the film's eagerness to glorify the white male. This film is not about Lawrence, played by a wistful, tragic and very sympathetic Sean Combs (Yeah, yeah. Puff Daddy. Who would have thought, right?). We aren't given any context for why he is in prison, or what his relationship with his wife and son was like before he was there. In one of the well turned out sequences in the film, Lawrence is pitiable as Combs makes him heave in panic, on the way to the execution. And then his role ends. The film isn't even about Leticia, who is written mostly as a flat character, one-dimensional in her helplessness, completely wasteful of the potential for complexity in a woman who has just lost her husband, and is struggling at the brink of survival. Berry struggled, cried and screamed her way to the Oscar in this one. While I didn't think it was a great performance by any measure, given that among the other comparisons we have of Berry's work is her abyssmal portrayal of 'Storm' from X-Men, this was quite a revelation.
What the film is really about, though, is Hank Grotowski and his (not so) epic journey of atonement. It has its moments of near brilliance - the deliberately protracted look at Lawrence's execution makes it very real for the audience. I have watched several scenes of execution in cinema, but very few have made me as uncomfortable as this one did. And yet, this gut-wrenching moment is not what 'turns' Hank. Immediately after the execution we see him thumping his chest like a military general who just engineered a clever destruction of the enemy's troops. It is, in fact, the sudden, unexpected and shocking suicide of a son he says he hates, that makes him wonder if all the black people around him might, in fact, be worthy of his acknowledgement. But this is only the beginning. Hank's ultimate object (and I use this word in the most heavily loaded manner), the instrument he's going to use to gain redemption, becomes Lawrence's wife, Leticia. This is exactly where her constant helplessness, her complete lack of agency and the unroundedness of characterisation fit in so well. The first time Leticia and Hank have sex, it's because she begs him to make her "feel good." Later, when she's been thrown out of her home, there he is again, pulling up in his car, sweeping her off the street and into his home. Then he promises to take care of her, and then he feeds her some ice cream, and then he stares up into the sky and assures her that everything will be alright. Well, No, it made me want to say. Everything is not going to be alright because you cannot overwrite everything that has passed just by taking in a black woman.
This is not just the story of Hank and Leticia. It is the projection of a point of view of how races do or should interact with each other. And this is why Hank's redemption seems too quick and easy. His blindness to Lawrence's humanity, and his positioning as the Hero in the life of the powerless, black woman may have been rendered less offensive if in the end, the film allowed its characters at least the recognition of the fact that Leticia knows who Hank really is, and confronts him about it. But no, apparently that's not needed. It's as if the film is trying to say that if only black people can forget about the oppression and racism and just learn to be grateful to the white people, then everything will, as Hank says, "be okay."
As far as the Academy Awards are concerned, of course, I suppose we've come a long way since the time when Hattie McDaniel was given an award for her portrayal of the offensive stereotype of the 'Mammy" in Gone With the Wind (1939). Even so, in the 21st century, when any informed follower of Hollywood knows that over generations, some of the most talented actors have been African American, if race relations are still struggling at a point where a black actress/actor winning the top award in her/his field is taken to be an achievement for the entire community, we still have an enormous distance to travel.
P.S.: For those of you wondering what the title of the film means: As Hank tells Sonny the night before Lawrence's execution, and as I found out for myself with a little bit of reading on Wikipedia, back in Medieval England, prisoners were often thought of as monsters, and it was common for jailers to party the night before the execution. It was this revelry that came to be called Monster's Ball.