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Monster’s Ball (Movie 2001) Analysis: Racial + Sexual Relations

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

This brief piece is an amalgam of two comments posted in response to Alt Film Guide’s Monster’s Ball review written by André Soares. The comments have been slightly re-edited for easier reading as a single post. See below.
I’ve seen Monster’s Ball twice, and in all honesty it grew in power the second time I saw it. I don’t agree that Halle Berry’s desperation for love and comfort comes off as comical. Indeed, I felt it came off exactly as both actors intended it: honest and tragic. Not simply for the depiction of the sexual relationship itself, but also in its consequences. That sex act changes both characters in a more profound way than I think either of them realize at first. In fact, I’m not sure if by the end of the film they’ve actually realized it.

Additionally, I think Monster’s Ball is a very easy target because of its openness when discussing race. The film’s characters could easily have been depicted as caricatures, but they don’t come across that way at all. They feel like real people who are not only products of their respective environments, but who are also trapped by the mindset’s they’ve created for themselves.

I also find the contrasting black/white symbolism – the ice cream and the spoon at the end – to be beautifully illustrated. With a less skilled directorial hand than Marc Forster’s, that moment could easily have come off as contrived. Instead, it works perfectly well as a way of externalizing the internal struggles Billy Bob Thornton’s character has around race.

Few films I’ve seen have looked at racial issues with such a stark eye. I really commend Marc Forster for having done so here. And I praise the film’s actors as well for tackling material that is not only difficult, but almost impossible for some to deal with.

My overall point is that Monster’s Ball walks a tightrope the entire time. Race relations in the U.S. are such a volatile issue. Many films are attacked for racism for simply depicting the issue. Monster’s Ball is one of the few films that walks that tightrope and succeeds, partially because it doesn’t simplify the issue as other movies have (Crash comes to mind) but chiefly because its makers understand how layered and multi-faceted that subject really is. (Note: Spoilers ahead in further comments about the sex scene.)

I would argue that the extended sex scene is of the utmost importance. Let me explain. The two characters we have (Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton’s) are on the surface diametrically opposed. This is true not simply because of their race, but for other reasons as well, including but not limited to their socioeconomic status: Thornton lives in a house that he will inherit, has no trouble with money, has a steady job; Berry, on the other hand, lives a life of struggling day by day to get by, getting evicted from her house, etc. In sum, Thornton lives in a sense “above” Berry.

The immediate trouble the viewer finds him or herself in, of course, is that both of these characters come to a place in their lives of utter groundlessness. Emotionally and psychologically, we find them in a position of clear unity. Both of them have lost a child. Neither is directly responsible, yet, the key is that they both feel responsible – and in a way, a very strong way, both are responsible, however indirectly, for the deaths of their children. Although neither consciously knows the extent to which they have come to this unity, they find themselves meeting at a crossroads.

The sex for them is not simply physical, but also emotional; this is clear regardless of what one thinks of the scene itself. Here we find two characters who are so guarded to the world, letting themselves go with each other, the last thing one would expect given their prior circumstances. During the sex act, they put themselves in the most extreme position of vulnerability imaginable.

A short scene might have accomplished the most basic elements of the sex act, but I feel it would have lost much of its emotional power, which is not simply to shock audiences (and that is, of course, part of it), but to force them to surrender to and consider what’s happening on screen. It’s not just sex; it’s a connection that goes deeper than that.

In the moment perhaps the sex scene may come off a little long, but in retrospect it works beautifully. It is not until the very final scene, the very last shot of them sitting and eating ice cream together that we realize the transformation they’ve been through. I believe the power of that scene is only then fully realized. And again, think of the ice cream/spoons…

I watched Monster’s Ball a second time on a whim; I couldn’t be more grateful that I did. I was truly blown away by the film’s power, honesty, and heartbreakingly poetic narrative.

© Nathan Donarum

Monster’s Ball movie image: Lionsgate

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