Halle Berry, in some form or another, has been fighting her whole life. Be it for coveted movie roles, on behalf of victims of domestic violence like herself, or against a perception that her physical beauty has insulated her from struggle, she has always seen herself as an underdog. And now, in her first film as a director, she has cast herself as one, too.
In “Bruised” (premiering theatrically Nov. 17 before moving to Netflix a week later), Berry stars as Jackie Justice, a humiliated mixed martial arts fighter desperate to stage a comeback. It is her most physically demanding role: Now 55, she had to train four to six hours a day to learn boxing, Muay Thai, judo and jujitsu, as well as brush up on the capoeira skills she used in “Catwoman.”
Then, she’d spend the rest of the day in director mode: scouting locations in Newark, developing a script initially centered on a 20-something Irish Catholic white woman, blocking elaborate fight scenes, and collaborating with her intergenerational cast of actors. For any first-time filmmaker, that combination alone is a feat.
Yet, with Justice, Berry plays one of her most complicated characters: In addition to being a former M.M.A. champion, Jackie is a middle-aged Black mother struggling to care for her 6-year-old son, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), after abandoning him as an infant.
“I understood who this character of Jackie Justice was and where she came from,” Berry said on a video call while sitting in the backyard of Los Angeles home. And after waiting six months for Blake Lively (who had first pass at the part) to decide — she ultimately demurred — Berry aggressively pursued the role.
“I loved it because fighting is something that I just know so much about on a personal level and on a career level. I understand what it is to fight and not be heard,” Berry said. “I understand the trauma of life that makes one want to fight, need to fight, have to fight.”
Not only did she win that round, but Netflix also seemed to be in her corner, paying upward of $20 million for the film, according to trade-paper reports.
As she explained, “I understand being marginalized as a Black woman and the anger, resentment, fear and frustration that comes with all of that. If I could put all of that into this movie, all the things that I know so well, then I knew I could create a character that will not only be real, but will resonate with women of different races, too.”
It is true that Jackie’s mere presence on the screen offers a counternarrative to the male-dominated heroism of most boxing movies. But, the film’s emphasis on motherhood also gave Berry the opportunity to make another statement in Hollywood: Jackie’s redemptive arc actively reimagines the fate of Berry’s more iconic characters as well as her more recent, yet lesser-known films.
Substance-abusing mother: “Losing Isaiah.” Grief-stricken mother: “Monster’s Ball.” Mysteriously impregnated-astronaut-fighting-to save-her-new-hybrid-species-child mother: the television series “Extant.” Waitress-turned-vigilante-after-her-kid-was-abducted mother: “Kidnap.” Raising-eight-Black-foster-children-during-the-Los-Angeles-riots mother: “Kings.” And these are just the ones I can remember.
What distinguishes Jackie, of course, is that she is an actual fighter. And for Berry, that fact, when tied to her character’s maternal drive, made the part more nuanced and novel for her. The actress had started our conversation worried about sending her two children to school and now explained that Jackie “does the unthinkable, which is leave her child for no real reason on paper, but emotionally, she couldn’t stay and be a mother.”
That act followed Justice to the ring, even causing her to lose a title fight when she asked to be let out of the fight cage. As Berry explained, Jackie was so scarred “that fear and guilt came straight to her in her next fight, and she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t face it. She was no longer the fighter that she once was.”
To prepare for the role, Berry did not just watch fights (she’s a lifelong boxing fan), but also asked female M.M.A. fighters why they chose this sport. “Now this isn’t true across the board, but my research taught me that men and women often fight for very different reasons,” Berry said. “Many times men fight as a career to take care of their family, be the breadwinner, to rise up out of poverty. And women often fight to get their voice back.”
She added, “Because a lot of them have been abused in some way in their early years, fighting became their only way to regain their sense of self, and power, and safety in the world.”
When I asked Berry if her decision to direct was part of her own journey to control how she appeared onscreen rather than be subject to the whims of an industry that until recently had often relegated middle-aged women, much less Black women, to supporting roles, she paused. I asked if she needed a moment to reflect on the twists and turns of a career that included her being the first Black woman to win an Oscar for best actress (the 2001 “Monster’s Ball”) and a Razzie for worst actress (“Catwoman” in 2004).
“We’ve all been spoon-fed versions of who we are, but not by ourselves,” Berry said. “That’s the sense of power I’m talking about. I feel powerful just because I get to do it and put my voice in the world in some way, and my sensibilities as a Black woman out there.”
Two scenes, in particular, stood out in which Berry was not simply referencing her past movies, but also clearly revising the traditional male gaze. Early on, an argument between Jackie and her partner and manager, Desi (Adan Canto), leads to sex, and their intensity and roughness reminded me of the moment in “Monster’s Ball” when her character, Leticia Musgrove, and Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) engage in a similarly desperate and violent form of connection. In “Bruised,” however, that scene is not nearly as climactic, but rather cut short and interrupted by the larger story line in which Jackie’s son returns.
Later, we realize the encounter between Jackie and Desi was also there to be contrasted with the more loving exchange between Jackie, and her new trainer, Bobbi “Buddhakan” Berroa (Sheila Atim). Not only does Berry direct the camera to pull close, and linger on the women’s caressing of each other’s bodies, but the passion is cathartic and truly healing to both.
To embody Jackie’s metamorphosis, Berry totally transformed herself. Her eyes are constantly swollen, her lips bleeding, and she wears baggy pants and braids without a hint of glamour.
When I told Berry that her character’s appearance reminded me of Brad Pitt’s disfigurement at the end of “Fight Club,” she pushed back, and then I realized that my gaze might also be distorted by preconceived notions about her and her career. In other words, she wanted to play Jackie because she saw parts of herself — past and present — in her story and her struggle for more.
“This is another battle I fought my whole life. That because I look a certain way that I’ve been spared any hardship. I’ve had loss and pain and a lot of hurt in my life. I’ve had abuse in my life,” she recalled, a reference to, among other things, domestic violence in relationships she has spoken of in the past. “I get really frustrated when people think because I look a certain way that I haven’t had any of those real-life experiences because I absolutely have.”
She further reflected, “This hasn’t spared me one heartbreak or heartache or fearful or tearful moment, trust me.”
Atim said she believed that “Halle’s wealth of experience as an actor was instrumental in fueling her instincts as a director.” But in the end it also mattered, Atim said, that “she understands storytelling so well.”
The result is a portrait of Black femininity that is both expansive and enriching, for Jackie, and ultimately for Berry’s audience as well. “We haven’t seen an African American woman in this way in a movie,” Berry said. “I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I am salt of the earth, it’s a world I know and is intrinsic to who I am.”
In other words, a film worth fighting for. “If I’m going to get to tell a story, I’m going to make it from a point of view that I know,” she said. “I thought that was a very good way for me to start.”