Like many of you, I just got through the season finale of Empire after enough stuff happened in the first 12 episodes to make Scandal look sedate by comparison. While everybody else is recapping the show’s plethora of incidents, discussing its prospects for the future, or pondering what its outsize success means for the larger culture, I thought I’d help you get through your post-Empire hangover by looking back at the career of the show’s breakout star, Taraji P. Henson.
She was born 44 years ago in Washington, D.C. The “P” stands for “Penda,” if you were wondering. Her given names come from Swahili, “Taraji” meaning “hope” and “Penda” being a unisex name that means “loved.” Before Empire, she had carved out a solid if unspectacular career. She earned an Oscar nomination for a fine, understated performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it wasn’t particularly memorable. Her first substantive role came in John Singleton’s 2001 drama Baby Boy, in which she plays the mother of Tyrese Gibson’s child and displays why she’s attached to the man-child at the center of the film despite all her impatience with him.
The success of Empire has brought much attention to the 2005 movie Hustle & Flow, where she co-starred with Terrence Howard and sang the hook on the Oscar-winning song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” (By the way, I can’t be the only person who picked up the Hustle & Flow reference in last night’s episode of Empire, when Howard’s Lucious injects the lyric “whoop that trick” into “Nothing to Lose.”) Henson gives dignity to a potentially embarrassing speech where her pregnant prostitute character thanks Howard’s pimp for letting her sing on the track, but the real great moment is when she hears her own voice played back with the backing instruments on “It’s Hard Out Here” and is blown away by how good she sounds. In the romantic comedy Something New, she was relegated to the sexually promiscuous best friend role, but in a few brief scenes managed to seem like way more fun than the heroine. She severely deglammed herself as a lesbian contract killer in Smokin’ Aces and distinguished herself in a very messy film.
As far as her best non-Empire performances go, I’d rate what she did in Think Like a Man, where she and Michael Ealy created such elegant, old-school chemistry that it reminded me of Tracy and Hepburn when I wrote up my review. Her best film is Talk to Me, which I rated the best movie of 2007. She plays a girlfriend who has a turbulent relationship with Don Cheadle’s Petey Green, and in a cast with Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor, she manages to throw up some spectacular fireworks of her own. These performances hinted at an actress capable of greatness, but the movie world had left it untapped. So had the TV world, as she had played cool, professional types in The Division, Boston Legal, and Person of Interest. She always had the potential to play someone who could sweep everything before her, but it took Empire creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong to give her the opportunity.
Unquestionably, the role of Cookie Lyon on Empire is the most complicated one she has ever had. If you’re only passingly familiar with the show, you might think that all she does is wear animal prints, crash corporate meetings uninvited, and sling “Oh, snap”-worthy insults at people. On the other hand, if you watch more closely, you see that she’s incredibly capable — a musical mind who improves her husband’s and her sons’ songs, a manager who can motivate a drugged-out rock star (Courtney Love), a mother who can counsel her gay son on meeting the challenges posed by his sexuality before the little boy even knows he’s gay. Oh, and she can throw a punch, too. Over the course of this season, we’ve seen her singing to herself in a prison cell to keep from going insane, drunkenly flirting with her husband’s new security chief (Derek Luke), covering her head and dialing herself down to cozy up to one rapper’s Muslim mother, and standing up to a different rapper (Kristopher Lofton) who threatens her: “You gonna Ray Rice me? I’ve faced bigger in prison with more talent, bitch.” All these different facets seem to arise out of the same person, which is why so many people are now writing paeans to the badassery of Cookie.
I’m interested to see what kind of blowback she gets from mistakenly ordering that mob hit man killed in Philly, which somehow was never mentioned again. In the meantime, I really don’t see how Henson loses out on the Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Dramatic Series, unless Tatiana Maslany totally lays waste in the upcoming season of Orphan Black (entirely possible, by the way). This veteran actress is finally enjoying a gold-plated, fur-lined moment at the center of the culture, and it has been well-earned.