Taraji P. Henson's Greatest Acting Roles

BYErin Haley1477 Views
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BET Awards 2022 - Show
Host Taraji P. Henson speaks onstage during the 2022 BET Awards. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for BET)

What is your favorite Taraji P. Henson role?

When it comes to Hollywood, Taraji P. Henson has become a sage as well as a superstar. Recognizing the negative ripple effect of labels, she has made it a point to insist that she wishes “Hollywood would stop labeling movies, especially movies with predominantly black casts. Then, it makes others feel like, "Oh, well, that's not for me." At the end of the day, everybody understands love, loss, pain and heartbreak. That's not a color.”

This ability to recognize the unique power of stories as possessing a universal potency seems to have been a marker of her career, a career that has seen her shapeshift on the big and small screen into characters that are riveting in their rawness one minute, and then sympathetic in their humor and vulnerability the next. She has no ‘type’ and no standard category, making her compelling to watch in every manifestation she chooses. Still, it cannot be denied that her eyes have always been a hypnotic feature, able to express an entire hierarchy of emotions and needs that would have Maslow reassessing its psychological categories. 

A retrospective cataloging of her career makes it difficult to absolutely assert that some roles are ‘greater’ than others, but it is worth a shot. 

Baby Boy

When it comes to assessing a thespian’s roles, it’s always important to acknowledge that foot-in-the-door job, without which all other greatness might not have transpired. Although Henson earned her SAG card in the early ‘90s for work in background parts, it was her role as Yvette in the 2001 film Baby Boy with Tyrese Gibson, Snoop Dog ad Ving Rhames that secured her a spot on the map in 2001. Now considered a cult classic, her character navigates the perils of love and commitment in Los Angeles. Produced by John Singleton, the film manages to cover a wide spectrum of issues from infidelity to abortion, returning time and time again to its theme of growing up amid harrowing choices and circumstances. 

Hustle & Flow 

2005’s Hustle & Flow might be deemed a personal milestone for Henson. It was in this gritty film about a pimp reaching for his dream of being a rap artist that Henson was able to flex her acting muscles to their fullest effect. In the film, Henson played Shug, one of the three women that pimp DJay tricks out from his un-air-conditioned ramshackle home. Shug is the sweet soul of the film, her advanced pregnancy making her seem - at first - vulnerable to the point of weak, except that Henson turns the character into the ultimate of survivors. Even as DJay self-aggrandizes himself in lyrics and dialogue, Henson’s Shug meets him strength for strength, epitomizing the emotional core of the entire film the second she opens her mouth and sings. 

Hidden Figures

A film that scrutinized the hypocrisy and immorality of racism in this country, especially as it relates to scientific achievement and historical firsts, Taraji seemed preordained for the role of Katherine Johnson before Hidden Figures was even written. In real life, Johnson was one of three Black Female mathematicians without whom NASA would have been rudderless at a critical time in the Cold War.  Starring alongside Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer, Henson especially kept the film from kowtowing to the ‘white savior’ motif that Hollywood all too often falls back on, instead gripping audiences with her scenes where she rips her superiors for their obliviousness to racial realities, such as the fact that bathrooms were still segregated at an organization that supposedly promoted human advancement and greatness. 

Proud Mary

Taking a sharp turn from her Katherine Johnson depiction, Taraji went back to gritty storylines, this time in an assassin thriller where her role as a hit woman for a Boston-based organized crime unit is compromised when she meets a young boy who has been caught up in the violence. Even though the film’s clumsy storyline and direction were panned, Henson’s acting was praised, proving that her chameleon abilities are always a surefire deal. 

Empire

If anyone in the world didn’t know who Taraji P. Henson was before Empire, they certainly knew who she was after. The Fox TV series that has as much glam as Dynasty and as much family drama as the Sopranos, gave Henson a dynamic opportunity in the character of Cookie Lyon. With Lyon, Henson has stretched her talents to the maximum. Though the actress has professed to having a love/hate relationship with the character, Lyon (and Henson’s portrayal of her) is so rich that a spinoff centering on her is reportedly in the works. As the main female character in this musical drama, Henson plays the wife of a drug-dealer-turned-music-exec with aplomb, handling the many dramas and exploits that come when a family is building a musical empire.  

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