Gary Thompson | 'Perfect' Berry still fights 'this thing of racism'

Posted: April 13, 2007

WHEN HALLE Berry bumped into Barack Obama on the Letterman show a few days ago, it was different from an actress batting eyes at Hollywood's new leading man.

Berry feels a special bond with Sen. Obama, whose book, "The Audacity of Hope," she's just finished reading, feeling especially moved by passages related to the presidential candidate's racial background - white mother, black father - a background that mirrors Berry's own.

The bond has only grown stronger as Berry has watched Obama's race credentials be scrutinized by essayists Stanley Crouch and Debra Dickerson, who wonder whether Obama's Kenyan father leaves the candidate disconnected from the legacy of American slavery.

"I read that, too, and I felt, dammit, here we go again," said Berry, who heard those same sentiments after she won the Best Actress Oscar for "Monster's Ball." "I remember after I won the Academy Award, some people said, Well, she's not really the first black actress to win."

That sentiment stung Berry, who as an aspiring model had to fight to make a go of it in a lily-white industry, a fight that continued when she turned to acting. She imagines things were no less difficult for Obama.

"I know that Barack is a black man, and I know why he feels like that, because look at him - he's lived his whole life treated as one," Berry said.

"Then, when wonderful things begin to happen, people want to deny him of who he is, and question his identity. So I do relate to him on that level."

When an interviewer observes that Toni Morrison once famously argued that Bill Clinton was the first black president, she chuckled at the irony that should Obama be elected, some eggheads may demand that he cede the title of first black president to Bill.

"It's a crazy world," laughed Berry.

Growing up in a mixed-race home in Cleveland, she learned just how crazy.

"When I was little, I understood that my mom was blonde and blue-eyed and very white, but I really didn't understand the difference between the two of us. Was I different from my mom? Yes, but I was different from my sister. We're all a little bit different.

"It was only when I started going to school, getting around the age 7, 8, 9, that the other kids started to let me know how different I was. There it was, this thing of racism. Suddenly the topic of race was crucial for me. But until then, I had innocently seen the world in a very color-blind way."

It's due to that unique perspective - the ability to experience life in a racial or a race-neutral way - that she believes she understands Obama.

"I get how you can see the world that way, and how that could help you get to the things that matter in this life and in our politics," she said. "I really connect to his ability to see the world in a color-blind way."

Berry believes other people do, as well - it's part of what accounts for the popularity of a first-term senator in a national race.

"There's a freshness about Barack," she said. "There's a freshness about his attitude. Because he hasn't been doing it forever, you know? He has a fresh outlook that I believe is reflective of a new generation."

Berry, believe it or not, wasn't in town to campaign for Obama, but to promote "Perfect Stranger," a thriller with Bruce Willis, who until recently was her next-door neighbor in Los Angeles.

As Berry read the script - about a reporter who tries to expose the philandering of a celebrity businessman - she thought of Willis. Rather than calling his agent, she just marched on over and rang the bell.

"He opened the door and was standing there in his robe and I said, 'I know this is really really rude and inappropriate but I have to take this opportunity to tell you you'd be great for this. Would you please read it?' And he did, and he loved it," Berry said.

("Perfect Stranger" was a bit of a reunion - Berry had a small but memorable part as an exotic dancer in Willis' "The Last Boy Scout.")

Her next project - "Tulia" - is also a reunion. It's the true story of lawyers who expose the corrupt, racist prosecution of black citizens in a small Texas town.

She'll star opposite Billy Bob Thornton ("Monster's Ball"), who'll reteam with director Carl Franklin, his collaborator in the fabled "One False Move." *

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