Taraji P. Henson Says TV, More than Film, Paved the Way for Black Women Leads (and Wants to Play a Man)

Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.

Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson takes the long view. Others might look at a film like “Hidden Figures,” the 2016 Best Picture nominee in which Henson starred alongside Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae and herald its success as proof that Hollywood is finally waking up to the massive market for films starring women of color; Henson wants to look just a little further back.

“We’re starting to see more black women lead films,” she said. “That’s a good thing, but I think that was already happening. … I don’t know if it was that film, but it had started to happen anyway on television. After Kerry Washington and ‘Scandal,’ and then next thing you know here comes Cookie, then you have Annalise on ‘How to Get Away With Murder.’ It just started happening.”

The “Cookie” in question is, of course, Henson’s own Cookie Lyon, leading lady of the hit television series “Empire.” Henson has starred on the Lee Daniels series since its debut in 2015, so far earning two Emmy nods for her work as the formidable wife-turned-criminal-turned-corporate-heavyweight. The FOX show kicked off its fifth season in September.

“Hidden Figures”

Henson’s other TV examples pre-date the success of “Hidden Figures” by years, and those are just the network shows. Recent years have also seen the introduction of popular series led by black women like HBO’s “Insecure,” Netflix import “Chewing Gum,” OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” and BET’s “Being Mary Jane.” “Once you prove that you can garner an audience on TV …[and] if it’s successful, the industry works like this: They see you can make a buck, and then it’s, ‘Well, let’s do some more,’” Henson said. “There’s been a market for it.”

While “Hidden Figures” may have been her most visible success, Henson was already working on her next steps when the film arrived in theaters on Christmas Day 2016. The change in the industry was “definitely happening because I was still getting movies,” Henson said. “‘Hidden Figures’ was just one of the movies I had lined up that I was starring in.”

Post-“Hidden Figures,” Henson has already led two other, very different films, including the ass-kicking actioner “Proud Mary” and Tyler Perry’s nutty psychological thriller “Acrimony.” (Henson also found time to voice a new character on “The Simpsons” in a two-episode arc.) This Thanksgiving, she’s lending her voice to her first animated feature, “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” in which she stars as Yesss, the high-powered CEO of the internet’s most popular video sharing site. However, she has much bigger plans for what she wants to do next.

“Ralph Breaks the Internet”

Walt Disney

“I’m a character actress, so I haven’t played a man before,” Henson said with a laugh. “Something totally transforming, where I have to maybe have a bald head. Something where it doesn’t look like me at all, even though I’ve done it kind of with aging in ‘Benjamin Button.’ Something drastic, like maybe like a Dr. Seuss character or something like that.”

Next year, she’ll star in fact-based political drama “The Best of Enemies” and the gender-swapped rom-com “What Men Want.” That kind of diversity reflects Henson’s own mindset when it comes to picking movies she wants to see, and the way she hopes the industry might keep evolving to serve what its paying audience really wants to see.

“People are so afraid to just display the world as how it is,” she said. “It’s a lot of people in this world. When I go to the movies, I don’t say I want to see a special race group movie like, ‘I want to see a white movie this weekend. I want to see a black movie.’ I look, I see the previews, and it either moves me to want to go spend money or not. The audience is everything.”

Disney will release “Ralph Breaks the Internet” in theaters November 21.

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