Stop Asking Taraji P. Henson What It’s Like To Be Black In Hollywood

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images.
Hidden Figures can't conceal how good it is. The satisfyingly empowering film — which stars Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, musician-turned-actress Janelle Monáe, and Hollywood veteran Taraji P. Henson — is based on the real-life, little known story of three Black women who helped NASA launch the first men into space in the 1960s. But while the movie may not win an Oscar, it will elicit plenty of cheers and tears from audiences (and also send them googling to learn more about the history that inspired it). For all its merits and uplifting scenes, though, there's one electric current that gives this movie its spark: Henson. While the actress is the queen of portraying fast-talking, around-the-way girls like Baby Boy's Yvette and Empire's Cookie, in Hidden Figures she reminds us that — like her sweet Southern character Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which she was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 — as an actress, she is a true chameleon. In fact, Henson is so convincing as a shy mathematical genius determined to break through racial barriers at NASA that Cookie Lyon feels like a distant memory. We sat down with the actress to talk about the real-life Katherine Johnson and the lesson from Hidden Figures that we can all apply to our lives post-election.

What was it about the concept of Hidden Figures that made you say, "Sign me up"?
“Once I found out Katherine Johnson was a real story and that these women really existed, I felt like I had been lied to all of my life. It's not that my mother or my dad said math and science weren’t for me, or for girls. But it was a universal understanding when I was coming up: Girls, go do domesticated stuff. You learn how to be a woman in the kitchen. "So when I heard Katherine's story as this brilliant mathematician and space scientist, I remember being very angry. Because somewhere along the way, someone stole a dream from me. I would go to my math and science classes as a kid and pick the desk all the way in the back of the room because I always expected myself to fail at those subjects, because I’m a girl. When, hey: I could've been a scientist! So I had to do this movie, because I don’t want another girl to walk around believing that BS.”

When I was watching you as Katherine, writing these intricate formulas and using all sorts of space terminology, I wondered: How much did you actually have to learn for the role?
“We had a mathematician on set with us at all times, but my brain is just not mathematically or scientifically wired. So I had to look up a lot of the terms, because just memorizing the words as part of my lines didn’t stick — I didn’t know what I was saying. "I had a chalkboard put in my apartment, because there's one scene where my character does a major equation on a chalkboard in front of a room of NASA men. Learning that was like choreography for me. I'd practice on set between takes with my eyes closed, because we didn't want to use a hand double. Even Mr. Big Bang Theory Jim Parsons was like, ‘Get this girl a hand double! Who the hell learns this?!’ But looking at the film, I’m glad we didn't, because it’s more authentic. And I got the big equation scene right in one take!"

Wallowing is not my story. But am I being paid what I should be, compared to men or women who aren't Black? You need to ask the studios that.

Taraji P. Henson
I read that you met the real-life Katherine Johnson. What was that like?
“It was like waiting for royalty to enter the room. She remembers everything like yesterday: She's 98, and her mind is still very sharp. What struck me the most is that she's a superhero, but she's also selfless. She didn't complain about anything that happened to her. I was asking her questions because I wanted her to be like: It was horrible, they treated me like this, it was bad. But she just said: 'You know, it was the way it was. That’s just the way things were. I just wanted to go to work.'" So she wasn't focused at all on the obstacles that were in her way?
"I identified with that in her, because that's how I feel when I always get this one question from journalists: 'How do you feel about Hollywood and how it treats Black women?' And it’s like: I’m not gonna sit and complain about how bad things are. I know everyone wants me to go, ‘Woe is me.’ "But I think the more important question everyone needs to be asking is: Has Taraji gotten paid? But don't ask me — ask the execs. I know I’m a Black woman and they don’t see my value, so ask them those questions. I can't really wallow in the muck, because Hollywood’s been great to me. I can't sit here and complain about diversity, because I’ve been doing this for 20 years; I own six properties; it's changed my life; it's changed my bank account. Wallowing is not my story. But am I being paid what I should be, compared to men or women who aren't Black? You need to ask the studios that."

So much of the conversation about Hollywood this past year has been focused on "#OscarsSoWhite," but the lack of inclusivity and equality goes beyond that.
"Exactly! I didn’t pick up this script and say, ‘This is my Oscar-winning performance.’ I picked up the script because this story is bigger than all of us. This story is bigger than any silly little personal agenda or trying to get some damn trophy. Not to diminish getting an Oscar, but to me that’s just icing on the cake. For me, the work of being an actress is worth it when I pass a sister on the street and they go, ‘Oh my god, you changed my life when you were in this movie, I was about to kill myself and I saw that scene and you said...’ That is what art is for."

I think we also need to widen the conversation about "diversity in Hollywood" beyond just Black and white.
“We absolutely do! Diversity is many races, but also everything: We often leave physically and mentally challenged actors and actors with disabilities out of the conversation. It's also about women, both in front of and behind the scenes. That’s why sometimes I hate those questions about being Black in Hollywood, because there's more to it than that.”
Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
There's one scene in Hidden Figures when all three of the main characters are dancing and drinking at home, and I loved it. I'm always thirsty to see depictions of Black female friendships like my own, because it's so rare that we see that in movies and TV. Do you agree?
"I do. And just in general, you just don't see three African American main protagonists in a movie. Who are women! I think it was Pharrell [Williams, who helmed the film's soundtrack] that said this film is special because it’s not about Black women getting a divorce, or somebody's man walked out on them, or three girls going on some vacation, waiting to exhale. "Not to take anything from those movies — because they are needed as well — but this is just a refreshing look at the complexities of being an African-American woman. We are very complex. And smart. Just like Olivia Pope’s story is needed, Cookie’s story is needed, and so is Annalise’s. Black women: We come in all shapes, sizes, all kinds of attitudes, all kinds of educational backgrounds. We’re multilayered, just like any human.”

What do you think is the biggest lesson you learned while working on Hidden Figures?
“Don’t complain about your situation, because it is what it is. The question is: What are you going to do about it? If Katherine Johnson sat around and complained and complained and complained, would we be on the moon? Would we be on our way to Mars?" "We all need to stop being lazy and pay attention. As a people, with the last administration, we got lazy. We were like: Everything is going good, we’ve got a Black president, LGBT people are getting their rights, it's all good. We got lazy. And then this happened. So when people ask what to do next, I want to say: Wake up, everybody! We’ve got work to do. Pay attention, read, research, figure out what you can do in your own backyard that will make a difference."

You sound like politics could be in your future! Which leads to my last question: What's next for Taraji?
"I love acting, and these days I'm into finding characters that are the polar opposite of Cookie on Empire, to remind people that I’m not Cookie. So I have a few projects I can't talk about yet, but they'll be very different. I see myself producing more, and I also want to get more involved in casting. Casting is half the work! Yes, for diversity, but you know in Hidden Figures, if there was no camaraderie between the three of us, if there was no real, true love there, there would have been no real, true love for those three women on the screen. So casting, producing. And maybe even one day directing! You never know.” Hidden Figures is in theaters December 25. Watch the trailer, below.

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