By Lori Denman-Underhill
Not every actor or actress has the privilege of telling a story on screen whose message is completely synergetic with their own. Actress Taraji P. Henson would tell you it’s no accident. Films that cover controversial subjects, female achievements or human rights within the African-American community are exactly her cup of tea.
Much like her role in the acclaimed drama Hidden Figures, where Henson plays the brilliant Katherine Johnson, an African-American female mathematician whose calculations as a NASA employee were critical to the success of one of the greatest space operations in history.
“I feel like it’s my obligation,” Henson explained in an interview with Ebony.com. “I’m an artist. I want to tell stories that matter. I’m always interested in movies that move humanity forward, change perspectives of people you know.”
The Golden Globe winner and Academy Award-nominated Henson, 48, is conscious about picking projects that speak to her heart and further her own message of equality and progress for the African-American community.
She addresses the historic yet still relevant topic of race relations in her latest non-fiction film, The Best of Enemies. Set in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, the film—based upon the novel by Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South—centers around a two-week-long discussion of ordinary citizens on the subject of school integration.
Based on a true story, the film brings together members of the black and white community—most dramatically the two main characters; Ann Atwater, played by Henson, a local firebrand of a Civil Rights activist, and Claiborne Paul “C.P.” Ellis, played by Sam Rockwell, the head of the Durham Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Portraying the true-life character of Atwater gave Henson a chance to show the integral part segregation has played within American society. It also gave the actress a platform for her own civil rights advocacy offstage, she explains in an interview with Oprahmag.com.
“What’s happening today is that everyone is doing a lot of talking, but not much listening. We should try listening to understand the other side…Often, we can find better solutions that way,” Henson said. “But if you try to match hate with hate, you’re not going to get anywhere.
“At the end of the day, we just need to have more compassion for each other and unconditional love, no matter our differences or background,” she adds.
Born and raised in southeast Washington, D.C., Henson grew up watching Solid Gold and was inspired by the likes of such acting legends as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson. She studied acting at the famed Howard University and began her Hollywood career guest starring on several television shows before making her breakthrough in the coming-of-age film Baby Boy in 2001. She received praise for her performance as a sex worker in Hustle & Flow (2005) and as a single mother of a child with a disability in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). She also made noteworthy appearances in the action comedy Date Night and the remake of The Karate Kid.
While she is now happily engaged to former NFL quarterback Kevin Hayden and residing in Chicago—her self-proclaimed dream town where everyone is ‘real’—her own life story has not been without its share of strife.
In a recent interview with Variety, Henson opened up about her personal battle with anxiety and depression following two tragedies in her life in 2003—the death of her father, Boris Henson, and also her son’s father, William Lamar Johnson. “We’re walking around broken, wounded and hurt, and we don’t think it’s okay to talk about it,” Henson told Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister.
She shared that her depression and anxiety escalated during the skyrocketing success of her pivotal role on the hip-hop TV drama Empire. During that time, she says the desire to pull away from the limelight was strong, as was the longing for more privacy and time for self-care, in addition to caring for her son, Marcell, who was also suffering from depression.
It was while looking for a relatable therapist for Marcell that Henson discovered how tough it was to find one of African-American descent. The experience jump-started her effort to get rid of the taboo associated with metal health, specifically within the African-American community.
“People are killing themselves,” Henson said in the Variety interview. “People are numbing out on drugs. Not everything is fixed with a pill.”
Taking her efforts a step further, the actress created the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in honor of her father, who also suffered from mental issues following his service in the Vietnam War.
Henson explains that there is still a lot of work to be done, but the first step is to lift up the carpet and talk about it. Her personal advice for others who are struggling is to find a professional therapist—someone who has no stakes involved so that “when you’re on the ledge, you have things to say to yourself that will get you off of it,” she explained.
Henson remains true to herself and her work. Her latest project will be released in 2020 and promoted later this year—a Netflix original police drama called Coffee and Kareem. Henson will star as the girlfriend of a Detroit cop who aims to clear his name and take down the city’s most ruthless criminal with the assistance of her 11-year-old son.
Henson’s main message was perhaps best summed up during her recent Glamour interview: “The fight continues,” she said. “Just like so many women before us who fought so that we could sit here. Now’s not the time to drop the torch.”
“We have to continue fighting,” she insists, “so the ones coming behind us—maybe one day this is not their narrative. So we have to keep fighting.”