Taraji P. Henson has dedicated her career to uplifting and inspiring. The Academy Award-nominated actress constantly uses her platform to speak out about injustice and highlight issues plaguing the Black community.
Not only does she talk a good game, but she also backs it up, too. In August 2018, Henson founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation to provide support and bring awareness to mental health.
The same notion applies when it’s time for the her to select film and television roles.
In her most recent effort, Henson stars in The Best of Enemies as Ann Atwater, a no-nonsense activist fighting for justice in a post-civil rights era North Carolina. Atwater’s quest for equality takes a surprising turn when she develops an unlikely friendship with C.P. Ellis, who just so happens to be a very prominent member of their city’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
While the film is based on a true story that occurred in 1971, the struggle of racism and W
EBONY.COM recently spoke with Henson about her new role, honoring unsung Black heroines and overcoming hate.
What was it like reenacting such a tumultuous time in U.S. history?
It’s always hurtful, difficult, but you know in order for change we have to show stories like this. We can’t pretend it didn’t exist or we’ll find ourselves repeating history, which seems to be happening right now. That’s why I felt compelled to do this film because it was just poignant, and we needed to tell this story. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a member of the Ku Klux Klan in cinema denounce the organization and become a civil rights activist. I’ve never seen that. I’ve never heard of such a story and I thought when I first got the script that it was fictional.
From Ann Atwater to Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, you’ve made it your business to select roles that highlight the contributions of Black women who don’t always get their just do in a historical context. Is that intentional?
I feel like it’s my obligation. I’m an artist. I want to tell stories that matter. I take my job very seriously. I believe art is very important to society. Art can change lives. Look at how powerful music is. It transcends color and race. It’s just very important to me and I take my responsibility as an artist very seriously. I’m always interested in movies that move humanity forward, change perspectives of people you know. Because representation matters across the board.
Are there any unsung heroes you’re interested in highlighting?
I don’t have anything on my plate. So much stuff has come my way. I don’t go out my way looking for stories to tell because those scare the “ba-Jesus” out of me because it’s real people. I try to let those scripts find me.
Ann Atwater opened her heart to C.P. Ellis, who was a proud KKK leader and often incited violence on behalf of it. What advice would you give to EBONY readers in light of the rise of race-driven hate crimes?
You can’t meet hate with hate. When you’re talking someone and all you’re used to is hate you have to step back and you have to approach it from a place of God, God’s love. That’s the only way Ann Atwater was able to appeal to C.P. She spoke a language that he hadn’t been used to hearing. And it was a language that he always wanted. He wanted love. He wanted to belong to something and the KKK was a false sense of brotherhood because when it came time to get the help he really needed it didn’t come from his brothers, it came from a Black woman and when she decided to approach him with love instead of hate.
Half of the movie they were fighting and screaming at each other, but once she fell back and looked at him as a human and tried to understand his pain that was only when she was able to get through to him. I think America, I think the world needs one huge charette, where we all sit down, talk and we listen to each other. We don’t listen to respond or react, we listen from a true place of God’s love and love is the search for understanding.
If you’re not listening to try to understand then you’re not listening at all. That’s the only way change is going to come about because each side is just as passionate about their beliefs as the other and in their eyes they’re not wrong. But if you’re screaming at each other and screaming to get your point across, and nobody’s listening, we’re not moving anywhere. We’re gerbils in a wheel.
There’s been an ongoing conversation among Black women in Hollywood and fashion about stylists and makeup artists not being properly skilled. What steps do you take to ensure you look your best on set?
I request my team. Period. Always. If they can’t come, then I have my team vet out who we’re getting. I had a situation and I’m not going to say who or what, but I had a situation where I was fighting for my team to do my hair and makeup, and they thought that just because the guy was Black that he knew. See this is the trick, it’s not just because you’re Black that you know how to do Black hair because for half of my life an Asian woman was doing my hair. It’s just do you have the skill.
This publication hired this Black guy and they thought that just because he was Black that he could do hair and I’m wearing wigs right now. I protect my hair. I don’t wear my hair for work and he couldn’t lay a wig. I didn’t go off. I just silently proved my point to them. I went over there and I said to them, ‘Thank God my hairstylist is still in town. Can he please come up here so we can get through this photo shoot,’ and they said ‘of course,’ and I said ‘I don’t try to be difficult when I’m asking for my team. I’m asking for my team because I know they can do the work and they do really good work on me and they’re fast and they’re professional.’ I’m not trying to be difficult, I want to do my work and go home and I want to make everybody’s life easier.
Have you noticed any changes in Hollywood? Do you think women of color have more access than they’ve had previously?
Everybody’s working, thanks to streaming services. Everyone I know is working and they’re having great careers. You’re seeing Regina King get the shine that she always should’ve gotten. It’s interesting because a lot of us are like 40 and over and we’re revamped. We have this new career. It’s really interesting. I was saying that to Sam Rockwell [Henson’s Best of Enemies co-star] the other day, I was like, ‘Look at us old geezers. We’ve been born again in this industry.’
The Best of Enemies hits theaters April 5. Check out the trailer below:
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Jasmine Washington is a beauty-obsessed journalist by day and a trap music connoisseur by night. A lifelong New Yorker, she got her start as an intern at the now-defunct Juicy Magazine. Jasmine joined the EBONY.com team as a writer, penning daily stories on all things Black culture and entertainment.