On March 24, 2002 at the 74th Annual Academy Awards, Halle Berry became the first African American woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress. This historic night occurred over 45 years after screen legend Dorothy Dandridge was nominated for her role in the 1954 movie Carmen Jones. For years, parallels have been made between the lives and careers of Dandridge and Berry. In her new book, Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film, writer Mia Mask traces the careers of five iconic African American women including Dandridge and Berry. In addition, Mask also profiles Pam Grier, Whoopi Goldberg, and Oprah Winfrey. In addition to giving an analysis of the film careers of these actresses, Mask examines African American celebrity.
In the Dandridge chapter, Mask establishes the actress as the symbol of the conflicted era in which her star power manifested. The fact that Dandridge was able to achieve star status amidst the racial and social issues of the 1950’s is a feat unto itself. Mask seeks to explain this phenomenon.
Mask examines Pam Grier’s career as a sign of the times. In 1970’s America, Grier’s on screen radical persona led the charge for women being seen as more than just sex objects. Despite a career that started in sexploitation films, her transition into Blaxploitation facilitated a shift in Grier’s persona. As the definitive pop culture icon of the 1970s, Grier is a symbol of the past in the present.
Goldberg’s career is the most nontraditional of all the actresses in the book. Goldberg’s comedy can be seen as transgressive and out of the box. Mask views Goldberg’s screen persona as a critique of gender and racial issues and authority.
Mask chooses to focus on Winfrey’s television personality and her iconic rise to fame. Winfrey’s celebrity is attributed to her television talk show as a vehicle for self improvement and salvation for her viewers. Ironically, Mask does not focus on Winfrey as an actress or look at her film projects, with the exception of Beloved.
Lastly, Mask closes the book with Berry and focuses on her celebrity status as a result of the media’s embracing of the multicultural age. According to Mask, Berry “is one of the few actresses to cross the proverbial color line without adversely affecting her celebrity or alienating her fan base” (197).
Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film is both insightful and engaging. The only flaw in Divas is Mask’s failure to fully connect the fives actresses she chooses to profile. The connection between Dandridge and Berry are the most obvious. However, her arguments are thoroughly researched. Mask presents a consistent, well written examination on the celebrity of black actresses.