If Taraji P. Henson seems like she’s everywhere these days, it’s only because this moment has been over twenty-five years in the making. She has been honing her craft in movies made for a variety of audiences, delivering performances that bring incredible depth and dimension to supporting roles that might otherwise feel stifling without her masterful talent for characterization and ability to show emotional range. Not every actor could star in movies directed by David Fincher and Tyler Perry basically back-to-back, but Henson can, and has. She’s played sex workers and lawyers, assassins and long-suffering wives, troubled singers and successful, high-powered executives alike, and while these characters have vastly different backgrounds and motivations, their commonality is the dignity and complexity bestowed upon them by Henson’s electric and chameleonic charisma.
Today, Henson turns forty-eight, and in celebration of that (as well as her starring role in the upcoming reboot What Men Want), here’s a brief look back at some of the highlights of her sometimes-winding career path. Step into the Taraji P. Henson time machine with us!
Okay, our first stop is in 2001. The United States has been violently hurled into a new era, and director John Singleton releases Baby Boy, the follow-up to his incendiary South Central coming-of-age story Boyz in the Hood. The belief at the time was that a movie with no white people in it would find zero traction at the box office, but films by Singleton, Spike Lee, Forest Whitaker, and more have paved the way for increasingly mainstream successes that profile the black-American experience from a black-American perspective. Baby Boy is one such acclaimed drama, and it marks Henson’s major feature film debut.
It is now 2005. Clad in a modern take on Marilyn Monroe’s dress from The Seven Year Itch, Henson flexes her singing talents at the Academy Awards by providing the hook for an unforgettable rendition of Hustle & Flow’s “Hard Out Here For A Pimp” (which took home the statue for Best Original Song). She also stars in Common’s “Testify” as a wife who (as it turns out) has set up her husband to take the fall for a double murder. A decade later, she will reunite with Hustle & Flow co-star Terrance Howard, when she takes on the role of a conniving mogul’s wife, Cookie, on Fox’s Empire. But I’m getting ahead of myself — let’s go back to the mid-late aughts for the moment.
Henson begins her arc as lawyer Whitney Rome on Boston Legal in 2007, and, in a foreshadowing of her scenery-masticating performance in Proud Mary, she also appears as an assassin in Smokin’ Aces. Just one year later, Henson will achieve her biggest mainstream success since Hustle & Flow as the adoptive mother of the title character in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As the story goes: She’s scheduled a yard sale on the day she gets the call to go out for the audition, and she almost doesn’t cancel it, but the part is hers and she turns in an Academy Award-nominated performance opposite Brad Pitt. She also appears in Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys, and goes on to clinch the starring role in Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself the following year.
Is it important to note that during this time, Henson is also raising her son Marcell, now in his teens. She has played her share of mothers and expectant mothers, and it seems unlikely that her own experiences don’t inform her portrayals, but besides that, it’s important to remember that not all stars are forged the same way — actors are people, too, and sometimes they have different trajectories and priorities because of their existing lives outside of the characters we know and love. She had Marcell while she was still working her way through the Howard University acting program, supporting herself by working as a secretary at the Pentagon and as a cruise ship entertainer, and if that doesn’t help explain the way she honors her characters and their struggles, I’m not sure what would.
With that aside, where was I? Oh yes; we’re now in 2011, when Henson begins appearing as Detective Jocelyn “Joss” Carter on Person of Interest. She also attains the (perhaps dubious to some, but definitely not to me) honor of starring in a Lifetime Movie based on a true story: Taken from Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story. And she gets a Primetime Emmy nod for it!
From there, we pretty much know the rest: Empire, which becomes a cult success seemingly overnight, Hidden Figures, which you’d have to have a heart of stone not to love, Proud Mary, which positions Henson as the frontrunner for Pam Grier’s butt-kicking crown, and a reunion with Perry for the psychological thriller-drama Acrimony. Even when the movies may not garner the highest, say, Rotten Tomatoes scores, what’s remarkable is that Henson is consistently praised for her performances throughout.
Yes, whether she’s appearing in an awards show or as part of an ensemble cast, Henson brings the same intensity and commitment to every role, and luckily, her roles seem to be getting meatier and meatier as time goes by. Unfortunately, the Taraji P. Henson time machine can’t go forward, but if it could, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an EGOT in this triple-threat’s future. Before that, though, we’ll all have to catch her as the new (and let’s just say improved) Mel Gibson in What Men Want, which will hit theaters next February. What can I say? Even if it’s bad, she’ll be good.