Racism and Romance in the Deep South

By Ben Kenigsberg

Spectator Staff Writer

Marc Forster's Monster's Ball tells the story of a love affair between a white prison guard and a black waitress in the Deep South. They meet by coincidence, but they stay together because of what they have in common--they're both lonely, they've both suffered major losses, and neither has had a companion for comfort in a long time.

Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), descended from a long line of hardcore racists, is surprised when he realizes that Leticia (Halle Berry) is a lot like him. It's fascinating to watch Hank's conversion from a racist, and it's equally interesting to watch Leticia begin to understand Hank's intricacies. The two characters form a fragile bond, capable of being broken at any moment if either says the wrong word.

But while Hank and Leticia's friendship is convincing, their affair is less so. It seems to me that Leticia and Hank hop into bed with each other not so much because they need affection, but because they've both had a little too much to drink. That, and because an interracial love affair is more dramatic movie material than an interracial friendship, even if it isn't presented plausibly.

When Hank and Leticia wake up the morning after their first bout, their interaction isn't awkward, even though Leticia doesn't know a thing about Hank, and Hank barely knows more about Leticia. The movie never suggests that Hank and Leticia are in love until they sleep together impetuously, and once they've slept together, it pretends that they are and always have been in love.

More to the point--and this is a big flaw in the picture--Hank and Leticia's relationship only continues because Hank doesn't tell Leticia that he was one of the prison guards who executed her death-row-inmate husband, Lawrence (Sean Combs).

Hank realizes that Leticia is Lawrence's wife before he becomes romantically entangled with her. He says nothing. It's strange that, over the entire course of the movie, Leticia never asks Hank what his job is. Any rational person would ask Hank what he does for a living, but if Leticia knew Hank's secret, the movie would have no place to go.

Hank's changes-of-heart are made more obvious because, at the start of the picture, he's about as one-dimensional as characters come. Like his crusty old dad, Buck (Peter Boyle), he's so angry at everything that his face seems frozen in a glower.

"You always hated me, didn't you?" Sonny (Heath Ledger), Hank's son, asks him at one point.

"Yeah, I always did," Hank replies.

When Sonny invites over two of his friends--who happen to be black, and who are also no more than 10 years old--Hank threatens them with a shotgun. (Why someone Ledger's age would be hanging out with small children, black or white, is anybody's guess.) Later, at the funeral of a loved one, Hank is heartless enough to pick up a shovel and do the burying himself. He even denies Lawrence a final phone call.

Fortunately, Leticia is a more balanced character from the start. She feels cheated by her husband, but has been visiting him in prison for 11 years, unwilling to abandon him only because he gets along with their son, Tyrone (Corinji Calhoun). The scene where Leticia and Tyrone bid their farewells to Lawrence is uncompromising, largely because of Combs' performance, which is tender yet rough around the edges. Combs creates a character who, we can sense, once committed a heinous crime, but is now just a weary, gentler version of his old self. Berry is also very good. So is Thornton, although it's tiresome to see him cast in this kind of role again and again.

In one of the movie's most powerful scenes, Leticia tells Hank that the police won't help her because she's black. "I believe they'll try their best," Hank says; it's as if he's never known that racism existed.

Moments like this lend the picture lots of integrity, and the more Leticia and Hank come to understand each other, the less simpleminded the picture seems. Once the characters have morphed into their new selves, the only major flaw is the ridiculous but crucial character of Buck, a wheelchair-bound, cigarette-begging menace. The movie's insistence on making Buck into a cut-and-dry villain ultimately sinks it: there's no place for caricatures in a mood piece like this.

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