HFPA in Conversation: Taraji P. Henson Stares Down Racism

by Kirpi Uimonen Ballesteros April 17, 2019
Actress Taraji P. Henson, Golden Globe winner

armando gallo/hfpa

Taraji P. Henson knew she had to tell the story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater in The Best of Enemies. The drama is based on the rivalry between Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) who forms an unlikely relationship in racially segregated south in the early 1970s. “It was important for me to tell this because I noticed that the racial climate changed very quickly after the 2016 election.  It was a story that had to be told,” she explains to HFPA journalist Katherine Tulich.

Henson describes Atwater as a powerhouse. “When she got to moving it was almost like a locomotive train.  You better not get in her way, she will steamroll you.”

Some scenes were very emotional to her, especially the one when she is staring at a Ku Klux Klan hood. “That’s more powerful than showing the actual being mean to people.  And what you actually see is my visceral experience.  I’d seen pictures and documentaries about it but to come face to face with it, it was like I was looking into the eyes of a ghost.  That was my natural honest reaction.  It was very creepy.”

Atwater passed away in 2016. “Her granddaughter told me that she couldn’t pronounce my name all that well but she called me the Cookie lady.”

Henson won a Golden Globe in 2016 for her work on the TV series Empire, playing Cookie Lyon, part of a family dynasty that runs a fictional hip hop and entertainment company.  “I never saw me getting such international acknowledgment from a television show.  If you asked me 10 years ago I wouldn’t have seen this coming, not from TV.  I would have been saying a movie, a movie’s going to take me overseas and it’s going to break down all the barriers.  You just never know.”

Listen to the podcast and hear if she has fulfilled her dream; what is her reaction when people tell her she can’t do something; why she ended up in the hospital while filming The Best of Enemies and why there was a spit bucket under the table on set; why she enjoyed working with Sam Rockwell; how she first learned about racism; why she describes her late father as a man who didn’t bite his own tongue; how was her relationship with her father; how her son helped her stay focused and how they survived in Los Angeles; what was her mother thinking when Taraji was pursuing her career as an actress; why her grandmother is so important to her; what kind of kid she was; why she became a fighter; why she founded the Boris Henson Foundation, which aims to eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the African-American community; how fame changed her life; why she hesitated to play Cookie on Empire – and what the future holds for Cookie.