Growing up the only child of divorced parents in rough southeast D.C., Taraji P. Henson remembers, “My mother would be sitting at the table crying over a bill, and I’d walk in and be like, ‘Mom, don’t cry, I’m going to be rich one day!'”
“We never lived in the projects, but we were in the ‘hood, lower midle class, living paycheck to paycheck,” says Henson.
As a budding teenager in the mid 1980’s, Henson had a front row seat of what would become known as the crack epidemic.
“I remember watching our 13-inch black and white TV, and the newscasters were talking about crack. I saw the destruction happen firsthand in families, on the streets and in the schools. No hope, no jobs. Despair.”
While many schools saw their afterschool programs cut, the drama club at her school still stayed on. It became her refuge and her passion.
She continues to showcase that passion in the upcoming film that’s getting a lot of buzz, Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures tells the story of unsung NASA heroes Katherine Johnson (played by Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), black women whose drive and calculations proved crucial to sending astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962. The trailer had social media on fire when it dropped last month, but this was the first time that the stars had seen any more footage from the film.
In a press junket for the movie, Taraji can be seen and heard getting physically choked up when she talks about this monumental role showcasing this true story of strong black women that has never been told before.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Henson, collecting herself after a series of scenes that showed her going toe to toe with NASA superiors played by Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons. “I’m a girl from the hood. I didn’t grow up with much, so all I had was dreams and hope. The reason why this is so overwhelming,” she said, tears coming once more, “is because when you come from a place where you have no dreams, no hope, and all you see is that people that look like you don’t belong or they have no place in society…” She trailed off. “If I had known about these women coming up, maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist.”
“Not to say that I have a bad journey,” cracked Henson, who took the role in between top-rated seasons of Empire. “Let me clear that up. But nowadays, this is all kids of color feel like they have: sports, rap, acting. And there’s so much more work to be done.”
“I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. But you are the temple. It’s up to you. If you’re in a bad situation, it’s up to you to get out of it. For me, I’m sad that Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson won’t see this thing,” Henson’s co-star, Octavia Spencer said, adding, “But I’m excited that Katherine Johnson did.”
“I just want Katherine to be proud,” said Henson. “People come up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh, Oscars!’ Everybody wants to put that pressure [on me]. I don’t accept that pressure — I’ll let y’all say it — but what I was most concerned about is if Katherine would be proud. She’s still alive, this is her story. Whether the Oscars love it, whoever else … would she be happy? That’s all I care about.”