Taraji P. Henson’s star is in the ascendant – ‘P’ for Penda, for the curious among you. An increasingly familiar face in hit TV shows like Boston Legal, Person of Interest and Eli Stone, Henson has quietly been chiseling away at a Hollywood career for over a decade. It has been an unshowy rise: comfortable in ensemble pieces, she often selflessly lets other more gregarious actors take the limelight away from her.
Not that she hasn’t gone unnoticed by those in the critical know. She’s a multi-award-winner and as executive producer and star of Proud Mary, she is finally an above-the-title name. The action thriller from director Babk Najafi has Henson leading a cast which includes Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Danny Glover, Billy Brown , Xander Berkeley, and Margaret Avery. Henson brings her trademark charisma and presence to the screen as a hardworking hitwoman whose life derails when a hit gone wrong leaves a young boy orphaned. It’s a perfect vehicle for Henson as the emotional turbulence mirrors the physical demands. It leaves you wanting to see Henson leading many more films.
Here are six of the best stepping stones that have paved her much-deserved path to success.
Hustle & Flow (2005)
Henson had been gamely putting in creditable performances in little-watched movies and television shows for years but she got her big break here playing Shug, the muse of Terrence Howard’s ambitious drug dealer, turned rap artist-in-the-making. A slow-burning word-of-mouth hit whose critical adoration turned into box office success and award recognition, it also gave Henson a chance to show off her powerful singing voice: she performed the track It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp alongside Three 6 Mafia at the Oscar ceremony just before it won the award for Best Song.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009)
In this lavish but increasingly odd David Fincher movie – a sort of anti-Forrest Gump, in which Brad Pitt’s title character negotiates the 20th century whilst growing younger with each passing year – Henson plays Queenie, Benjamin’s adoptive mother. Henson said that Queenie was ‘the embodiment of unconditional love,’ and as the matron of a home for the elderly in 1920s New Orleans, she is absolutely everything you could possibly want from a sweet, unconditionally loving mum. Academy members too felt warmed by her maternal embrace and she was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress.
The Karate Kid (2010)
In the same week that ‘80s upgrade The A Team opened and closed, another retro-fitted Reagan-era remake blew it away at the box office. The Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith version of The Karate Kid was an unexpected mega-hit, surprising may people with its bold new take on the story. Henson played Smith’s mother who is relocated to Beijing by her employers. Her performance was heavily influenced by her own story. “That is what I noticed when I read (the script). At the time California was my Beijing. It was the unknown world for me. I had visited California when I was two. I moved 3,000 miles away from everything that I knew and loved, and took a chance; just me and my baby.” Or as Peter Cetera might have put it, she did it all for the glory of love.
Think Like a Man (2012)
After several years of intense, often downtrodden dramatic parts, Henson put on her glad rags and had some fun in this hugely successful ensemble comedy from Fantastic Four director Tim Story. Laura is one of four friends tired of the useless, infantile, non-committal men in their lives. They discover comedian Steve Harvey’s self-help book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and use its wisdom to get their men to shape up! Comic high jinks ensue, mostly involving Kevin Hart, but Henson’s burgeoning relationship with a high dreaming/low achieving chef is the sweetest chapter of the quartet.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Henson’s career took an interstellar turn in this critically lauded drama which shone a shamefully overdue light on the role of three black female mathematicians whose involvement in the space race proved vital. Henson played Katherine Goble, an analytic geometry expert who is promoted from the rigidly segregated computer section to help Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison get John Glenn into space. Despite proving herself utterly invaluable to the team, she and her colleagues (Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) still find themselves constantly up against racist and sexist attitudes from her co-workers and superiors.
Proud Mary (2018)
Connoisseurs of Movie Title Fonts will have instantly recognised the influence of 1970s Blaxploitation flicks like Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones on the poster for Proud Mary, and the spirit of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson haunts the high leather boots of Mary Goodwin, kick-ass Boston hitwoman. Taken under the wing of local gangster Danny Glover as a child, Mary was taught all the tricks of the trade. However, having orphaned a young kid herself while on a violent mission, she undergoes a change of heart as she tries to protect him. Cue much gun fetishising, slo-mo high-kicking, car chasing and copious amounts of Tina Turner. As the star (and executive producer) Taraji P. Henson holds it all together tightly.
Proud Mary is available to Download and Keep on July 16th, and on DVD July 30th.