A Monster Love
By Esther Iverem (2002)
“Monster’s Ball” tries to convince us, in a raw, depressing Southern gothic style, that a Black woman in a small Georgia town will turn to a White man, who is an open racist, for sexual comfort and companionship. It also tells us that a racist will release his hatred when confronted with personal tragedy and the unexpected attention of a pretty, young Black woman. Beneath these two ideas is the old theme that love—even if it really is something else, like neediness or convenience—redeems and conquers all.
The “truth” of the woman is established through her misery. Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), who works as a waitress, is about to be evicted from her tiny house. Her husband Lawrence (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs) has been on death row for 11 years for killing a cop. Her grossly overweight but kindhearted son gets sweetness in his life by devouring chocolate candy bars. She prefers to suck down miniatures of strong whiskey. She is seemingly without family or neighbors who care. In fact, the Black community, particularly the Black male, is depicted here as a complete failure in her life—her husband, her son, the boss who fires her, the sheriff who comes to evict her.
Important to Leticia’s world, as presented here, is the fact that she does not know her new man’s attitudes, or the fact that he just supervised the execution, the “monster’s ball,” of her husband. She doesn’t seem to care. What she wants is to “to feel better” so she throws herself at him. What she knows is that this man, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) has assisted her when she needed it and when no one else would.
It is fairly clear, at some point, that Hank knows who Leticia is but he never discusses the other connection between them. His transformation from a man who scares Black children from his property with a shotgun into a man head over heels in love with a Black waitress is not marked, understandable or believable. Your gauging of this transformation will greatly influence your reaction to the much hyped sex scene between these two. Leticia is clearly needy. But what is Hank feeling and acting on? Is this hot and raw? Disturbing? Both?
When Leticia discovers the past of her new guardian angel, her reaction is probably the closest the movie gets to emotional truth, which is not the same as resolution. Time and again, this film asks us to consider how we see a person’s soul and what we see. It asks us to define monster but is clueless about the antenna and caution African Americans, particularly Black women, have developed to survive within the monster of racism. It asks us to define monster. In the end, Leticia is forced to confront the former hate-filled soul of her new man as seen by her dead husband. Through his own tragedy, Hank is forced to look inside himself and consider human beings in a new way.
On some level, “Monster’s Ball,” is similar to histories that attempt to recast or ignore the history of rape of Black women by White men, and the how that legacy still reinforces a strong racial barrier. (Think of stories of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings that depict Sally as the sexual aggressor.) Berry, the product of an interracial relationship, who says she “begged” for the part, may not be representative of the impulse or truth of most Black women.
But Berry gives an able assist, an Oscar-nominated one, in helping the writers and director to convince us of the [message] they want told.