Black History Month is here and there’s tons of programming to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions Black folks have made to the world.
One program in particular is ABC's Soul of a Nation. The first special, Screen Queens Rising, explores how Black actresses, a historically overlooked and undervalued group in Hollywood, have in recent years begun to ascend to the top echelons of entertainment and American culture.
In the special, journalists sit with celebrated Black talent. Deborah Roberts interviews Tessa Thompson and T.J. Holmes chats with Halle Berry. Holmes has built his career being an advocate for Black talent, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
Shadow and Act spoke with Holmes about how his work as a Black male journalist helps Black women in Hollywood, the importance of the special and more. The special airs Thursday, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.
You interviewed the legendary Halle Berry and with her being an Oscar winning-actress and having such a versatile portfolio in terms of the roles that she played, now seeing her as a mentor to others, how important has someone like Halle been to the culture in your eyes?
TH: Halle Berry is everything. You started with “the legendary” and it’s hard to mention Halle Berry without putting some adjective in front of her name because she has had such a long career [and] such an influential career. It’s now the 20th anniversary of her winning that Oscar, but she has stayed so engaged in such a way in the industry she has served she is a mentor. She also just sets an example. And she also not only sets an example for folks to aspire to, even though no other Black actress has won it since she did, she is absolutely disappointed by that. But that moment inspired folks. That happened 20 years ago. So if you think about some of the young folks who were kids who were young women who were even little girls, or to be able to see her having that moment, did wonders for the industry and for women of color just to see it…even if they haven’t necessarily seen the fruits with awards. She sat on that mountain alone. It’s unfortunate. But we can’t just use awards as the measure of your worth or your success. And that’s something she really hits on in the interview — is that we’ve got to stop using these awards to kind of measure our success and our worth by these awards.
What else is something that you learned from her and this conversation that you had?
TH: 20 years ago this happened, when she won that Oscar. Now, she’s at the point where she believes that we have to stop using these awards as some kind of validation, even the nominations as validation of our awards in our work. And this was remarkable to me. She said she knows the exact moment she made that decision and that was at the Oscars when we had Viola Davis and Andra Day nominated in the Best Actress category, and neither one of them won. And she said she was sitting with Andra, and she was sitting within eye shot of Viola. And she says, you can just feel the weight she felt from then. The disappointment of neither one of them winning two chances out of five. I think the odds are in your favor. But she said that was the moment where she saw that disappointment and that hurt to where she said she had to stop.
We are going to stop using these awards as validation and say it’s something I learned and almost to the point at the end of our conversation – we spent two plus hours together – and it got to a point where I was almost wanting to apologize to her for saying, ‘You know what? I am sorry. I didn’t have enough appreciation of the work you have put in.’ And what I mean is we of course, it’s Hollywood. It’s hard, it’s hard work. It’s a fight, it’s a struggle to be a woman, to be a minority.
There’s a documentary that’s going to come out that shows the behind the scenes of her directing Bruised, and just to see the physical pain, the emotional pain she went through every single day to get this movie made. She broke ribs on the first day of shooting and didn’t tell anybody because she didn’t want the production to shut down every single day. Getting a call about there’s an issue with funding, having to have that fight. There were days, even in the trailer she was in, she couldn’t get hair and makeup done because the power goes out. It was non-stop. So where there was an appreciation, I saw and I saw it in her voice and she’s talking to me about the pain, but also then to see it laid out in this documentary, which she shared with me and again, folks are going to see it. She’s just different. She’s built differently and she is special, and she works hard in such a way that is beyond the glamour and the glitz and the beauty that people so often think of when they think of Halle Berry. She’s just absolutely remarkable – the work she puts in to be the success she is.
As someone who interviews Black actresses often, how does it feel to always talk to them and interview them and to understand that despite the critical acclaim it doesn't really necessarily translate into mainstream recognition. You did speak about obviously not holding so much weight on these accolades, but it's also frustrating at the same time.
TH: Too often, we are dismissive of that. People will think, it’s all glitz, it’s all fun, it’s all fame. And I think we, even though we understand it’s not necessarily easy, we don’t understand that Halle Berry does experience some of the same things that you or I or any of our other sisters that work in corporate America or work whatever organization it may be to be looked at, to be looked down at, to be assuming that how you look like that. So that means you must not be as smart or to be in some way diminished because you are a Black woman. And that is a pain and a struggle that certainly Black women in this country have a sisterhood. And no matter who you are and what industry, you can almost have those same conversations and have similar stories.
It’s shocking that you have an Oscar in one hand as Halle Berry and in some way, are viewed as less than or you having some of the same struggles or having to have some of the same fights as sisters. We get it intellectually and we can understand it as commonsensical. But at the same time, it’s still shocking. So it’s just that I have the utmost respect, not just for actors and actresses in Hollywood, but for the work they put in and what they still have to overcome and have to do it in front of the public a lot of times and still smile. So I just have a better appreciation now than I ever had.
I spoke with Sunny Hostin earlier, and we spoke about how there has been a shift in terms of representation and Black actors and actresses being able to have certain opportunities because of streaming platforms and there's just more networks and different things like that. But there is still a select group of talent that is getting more roles, and they're constantly sought after for the bigger roles. How do you feel about that and what do you think needs to be done?
TH: When you have more control at that level now, you can control not just the story you can control, but who gets hired to be in front of the camera, you can have control over what your writing room looks like. You can have control over what director of photography you hire and. That’s just starting a pipeline. Because now, Black women at the top hire a Black scriptwriter, a woman who now is going to get more opportunity, and now she’s more, she’s in the room and having more influence, and that’s going to branch out. So it’s that the beauty of it is not depending anymore on anyone else to help you tell your story. That’s still going to be necessary on some levels, but so much more. And it’s happening so much that people are taking in women – and women of color in particular are taking control of their own story.
How important do you think this special is for both Black and non-Black viewers?
TH: I think it’s important for us to see our people, see our stories, to hear the experience of somebody like a like a Tessa Thompson or Halle Berry, to be able to hear from them and share their stories. And for us, our community to be able to listen to them and to be able to relate, to be able to sympathize and also be inspired and be motivated. I always think it’s important for people outside of our race to hear from us, to hear directly from us what our stories and what our experiences are and have a better understanding of us and what our experiences are. So I think there’s incredible value in that. I think it’s important for all to pay attention to these voices and these stories.
What are you doing to make changes and put your stamp on change in your everyday work, whether it’s personal or professional or both that you can speak of.
It’s nothing more pleasing when somebody reaches out and says, ‘Thank you.’ I’m an expert on Black stuff because I have lived this experience and we all oftentimes have to fight and struggle to get stories or get stories told a certain way. Because I am sitting in a room with 30 white people and those 30 white people don’t understand what I’m saying, so they’re all in agreement. So that is a constant fight. That’s a constant struggle. Sometimes it gets frustrating.
We have made strides at ABC in that regard, and I believe I’ve been there seven years. It’s come a long way since I first started. Several years ago on air, we banded together – a few of us initially – four or five of us, and then we expanded the group of all of the Black on air talent at ABC News, and we got together and went to our then president at ABC News and directly made some suggestions to improve diversity behind the scenes at ABC. It’s one of the things I am most proud of in my career. It’s not something that was public that we were trying to get credit for. It’s not something that benefited any of us in our individual careers on the air, but we were fighting to get more diversity in our newsroom and we got it and we got a lot of it. And no, it’s not perfect, but that’s something that I am so, so proud of and that we made an effort to make a difference at a network this big and improve not just diversity in the newsroom, but diversity in the newsroom improved your products.
Your product is more diverse that you put on the air, you’re serving more people and it’s a better product. So this is every single day, so it is every single day and sometimes it gets exhausting. But if I don’t speak up, nobody else is going to. So I carry it proudly. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of and it’s a responsibility and I will continue to take it on.
Soul of a Nation begins airing on ABC on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. EST.