Halle Berry, in one form or another, has fought her whole life. Whether it’s for coveted roles in cinema, on behalf of victims of domestic violence like herself, or against the perception that her physical beauty has isolated her from wrestling, she has always viewed herself as an outsider. And now, in her first film as a director, she also introduced herself as such.
In “Bruised” (premiered in theaters Nov. 17 before moving to Netflix a week later), Berry played Jackie Justice, a humiliated mixed martial arts fighter desperate to make a comeback. This is her most physically demanding role: now 55, she had to train four to six hours a day to learn boxing, Muay Thai, judo and jujitsu, as well as to hone capoeira skills. which she used in “Catwoman”.
Then she would spend the rest of the day in director mode: researching locations in Newark, developing a storyline initially centered around a white Irish Catholic woman in her twenties, blocking out elaborate fight scenes, and collaborating with her intergenerational cast. of actors. For any beginning filmmaker, this combination alone is a feat.
Yet, with Justice, Berry plays one of her most complicated characters: Besides being a former MMA champion, Jackie is a middle-aged black mother struggling to care for her 6-year-old son, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), after abandoning him as a child.
“I figured out who this Jackie Justice character was and where she was from,” Berry said on a video call as he sat in the backyard of the Los Angeles home. And after waiting six months for Blake Lively (who first got to play the role) to decide – she ultimately objected – Berry aggressively pursued the role.
“I loved it because fighting is something I know so much on a personal and career level. I understand what it’s like to fight and not be heard,” Berry said. “I understand the trauma of life that makes you want to fight, need to fight, must fight.”
Not only did she win this round, but Netflix seemed to be in her corner as well, paying over $ 20 million for the film, according to trade newspaper reports.
As she explained, “I understand being marginalized as a black woman and the anger, resentment, fear and frustration that comes with it all. If I could put it all in this movie, all of the things that I know so well, so I knew I could create a character that will not only be real, but also resonate with women of different races.
It’s true that Jackie’s mere onscreen presence offers a counter-narrative to the male-dominated heroism of most boxing movies. But, the film’s focus on motherhood also gave Berry the opportunity to make another statement in Hollywood: Jackie’s Redemptive Arc is actively reinventing the plight of Berry’s most iconic characters as well as his films. newer but less known.
Drug addict mother: “Lose Isaiah”. Grieving Mother: “Monster’s Ball”. The mysteriously imbued astronaut fights to save his new mother-child from a hybrid species: the television series “Extant”. Waitress became vigilant after the kidnapping of her child: “Kidnap”. Raising-eight-foster-black-children-during-the-Los Angeles-mother-riots: “Kings”. And these are just the ones I remember.
What sets Jackie apart, of course, is that she’s a real fighter. And for Berry, that fact, when tied to her character’s motherly motivation, made the part more nuanced and new to her. The actress had started our conversation worried about sending her two children to school and now explained that Jackie “does the unthinkable, which is to leave her child for no real reason on paper, but emotionally she doesn’t. could not stay and be a mother “.
This act followed Justice into the ring, even causing her to lose a title fight when she asked to come out of the fight cage. As Berry explained, Jackie was so scared “that the fear and guilt came right into her in her next fight, and she couldn’t do it.” She couldn’t face it. She was no longer the fighter she once was.
To prepare for the role, Berry not only watched fights (she’s been a lifelong boxing fan), but also asked female MMA fighters why they chose the sport. “Now that’s not true across the board, but my research has taught me that men and women often fight for very different reasons,” Berry said. “Often, men fight for a career to take care of their family, to be the breadwinner, to get out of poverty. And women often struggle to get their voice back.
She added: “Because many of them were mistreated in one way or another during their early years, fighting became their only way to regain their self-esteem, power and security. in the world.”
When I asked Berry if her decision to direct was part of her own journey to control how she appeared onscreen rather than being subject to the whims of an industry that until recently had often had relegated middle-aged women, let alone black women, into supportive roles. , she stopped. I asked her if she needed a moment to reflect on the twists and turns of a career that led her to be the first black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress (the “Monster’s Ball” of 2001) and a Worst Actress Razzie (“Catwoman” in 2004).
“We have all been spooned versions of who we are, but not by ourselves,” Berry said. “It’s the feeling of power I’m talking about. I feel powerful just because I can do it and put my voice in the world somehow, and my sensitivity as a black woman there.
Two scenes, in particular, stood out in which Berry didn’t just refer to his past films, but also clearly revised the traditional male gaze. From the start, an argument between Jackie and her partner and manager, Desi (Adan Canto), leads to sex, and their intensity and harshness reminded me of the moment in “Monster’s Ball” when her character, Leticia Musgrove, and Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) engage in an equally desperate and violent form of connection. In “Bruised,” however, this scene is not as climactic, but rather cut short and interrupted by the bigger story in which Jackie’s son returns.
Later, we realize that the meeting between Jackie and Desi was also there to contrast with the more affectionate exchange between Jackie, and her new trainer, Bobbi “Buddhakan” Berroa (Sheila Atim). Not only is Berry pointing the camera closer and lingering over the women’s caresses on each other’s bodies, but the passion is cathartic and truly healing for both.
To embody Jackie’s metamorphosis, Berry has totally transformed. Her eyes are constantly swollen, her lips are bleeding, and she wears baggy pants and braids without a hint of glamor.
When I told Berry that her character’s appearance reminded me of Brad Pitt’s disfigurement at the end of “Fight Club,” she pushed back, then I realized that my gaze could also be distorted by preconceptions. about her and her career. In other words, she wanted to play Jackie because she saw parts of herself – past and present – in her story and her struggle to find out more.
“This is another battle that I have fought all my life. It’s because I look a certain way that I have been spared any hardship. I’ve had losses and losses. pain and a lot of hurt in my life. I have been abused in my life, “she recalls, referring, among other things, to the domestic violence in relationships she has talked about in the past.” I am really frustrated when people think because I have a certain appearance that I haven’t had any of these real life experiences because I absolutely have. “
She added, “It didn’t spare me a heartache or a moment of fear or tears, trust me.”
Atim said she believed that “Halle’s wealth of experience as an actress helped fuel her instincts as a director.” But in the end, it also mattered, Atim said, that “she understood the storytelling so well.”
The result is a broad and enriching portrayal of black femininity for Jackie, and ultimately for Berry audiences as well. “We haven’t seen an African American woman this way in a movie,” Berry said. “I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I am the salt of the earth, it is a world that I know and that is intrinsic to who I am.
In other words, a movie worth fighting for. “If I have to tell a story, I’m going to tell it from a point of view that I know,” she said. “I thought that was a really good way for me to start.”