This Day In History: March 24

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On March 24, 2002, Halle Berry becomes the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a struggling widow who falls in love with her husband’s death row executioner in Monster’s Ball. As an emotional Berry clutched her Oscar, she tearfully called the moment “so much bigger than me” and declared that “the door had been opened” for actresses of color. 

Before Berry, the only African American actress to win an Academy Award was Hattie McDaniel, who earned the statuette for her supporting role in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. At the Oscar ceremony, McDaniel and her guest had to sit at a segregated table. 

The same night Berry won her historic Oscar, Denzel Washington became only the second Black man to win in the Best Actor category, for his role as a corrupt Los Angeles police officer in Training Day. It was the first time at the Academy Awards that Black performers had taken home both of the year’s top acting awards.  

Coming from a Cleveland home scarred by domestic violence, Berry sought to empower women through her work on and off screen. After success in the modeling and beauty pageant worlds—in 1986, she finished second in the Miss USA pageant and sixth in the Miss World competition—she moved to New York City to pursue acting. She made her film debut in 1991 as a drug addict in director Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. The following year, she starred alongside Eddie Murphy in the romantic comedy Boomerang. And in 1993, she played the titular character—a headstrong young biracial enslaved woman—in “Queen: The Story of an American Family,” the TV mini-series based on Alex Haley’s book. 

In her 30-plus-year acting career in film and television, Berry has taken on a broad variety of roles. She has played the Bond girl/spy Jinx in the 2002 blockbuster Die Another Day, a sly bank robber in the 2001 thriller Swordfish and a smart strategist counseling Warren Beatty’s character in the political drama Bullworth. She also became well known for her portrayal as the superhero Storm in four X-Men films, played a multiracial woman with dissociative identity disorder in 2010’s lesser-known Frankie and Alice, and took on six different characters across a time span of 400-plus years in the 2012 epic sci-fi film Cloud Atlas.

Berry has earned an array of awards, including a Primetime Emmy and a Golden Globe for her work in the title role of the 1999 HBO biopic “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” about—coincidentally—the first African American woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, in the film Carmen Jones. 

In 2004, two years after her Oscar triumph, Berry also gained the dubious distinction of winning the Worst Actress Golden Raspberry Award (known as the Razzies) for her title role in Catwoman, widely panned by critics. She showed up at the 2005 ceremony to accept it, her Oscar in one hand and the Razzie in the other, fake sobbing for a full minute before stating it was good to experience the “rock bottom” while also being at “the top.” "My mother told me that if you couldn't be a good loser then there's no way you could be a good winner." 

Berry was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in April 2007 and had soon become one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, earning some $10 million per film.