Empire is returning tonight for its season 3 spring premiere. From the previews, we already know that Cookie Lyon is going to cause thousands of dollars worth of damage to Luscious’ property with a baseball bat. Who said Lemonade wasn’t inspiring? Cookie has long been the glitter glue that keeps people tuned into Lee Daniels’ musical drama. I don’t even watch the show and I know this to be true. What makes Cookie shine is the undeniable talent and Black girl genius of Taraji P. Henson.
We already know Henson is a powerhouse when it comes to bringing the story of her characters to life. When she belted out, “You know it’s hard out here for a pimp” after playing the meager sidekick to her pimp DJay in Hustle & Flow, she stole the show. I never wanted harm to come to a single hair on Idris Elba’s body, until Henson was suddenly under his attack in No Good Deed. And ever since Hidden Figures was released, I’ve considered reconnecting with my AP calculus teacher from high school. Henson has proven herself capable of playing a plethora of dynamic roles.
But no matter what, I will always remember her as Yvette in John Singleton’s 2001 Baby Boy. Yvette was the mistreated lover of Jody (played by Tyrese) and to my eighth-grade self, the phoenix set to rise from the flames if only she could give the fire some air. The sex scene between them is forever burned into my memory as heterosexual #sexgoals. And when I visited Los Angeles last month, I went directly to Lucy’s — the restaurant where she infamously snapped at Jody, “Gimme my shake!” Of the many parts Henson has brought to life, her performance in Baby Boy — which served as her major introduction to Black audiences — was the strongest. I hoped to never find myself in Yvette’s shoes, but I was enamored by her passion for the man who caused her so much pain. It’s complicated, I guess.
Baby Boy is what many of us consider a “hood classic,” a well known movie for, by, and about Black folks. It was simultaneously accurate and problematic in its depiction of Black masculinity and Black love. Today, I feel the same way about Baby Boy as I do about the urban fiction novels that I read during that same stage of my youth. They will always have a special place in my heart because of their cultural significance — I am absolutely part of the cult that makes Baby Boy a Black classic — but as an adult, I can admit that they weren’t exactly masterpieces.
However, I can’t shake the feeling that Cookie is very much the older woman that I envisioned Yvette growing up to be: in complicated love with a man with whom she has built a family yet and still has to second guess constantly. Now she has the confidence and gusto to stay a step or two ahead, and finally leave some room for herself — and her fire — to breathe.