I almost bought this book when I was rage-buying books by people of color, but since it’s a memoir, I figured I might want to listen to the audiobook instead. I asked my library nicely to order it for me and they did and I promptly downloaded it onto my phone.
The author, Taraji P. Henson, narrates it herself and, needless to say, does a phenomenal job.
I’ll admit I didn’t really know anything about Henson until I started watching “Empire.” I had seen her in “Larry Crowne” and I knew she had done other stuff, but I didn’t really have any strong feelings about her until I started watching “Empire.” Actually, in all honesty, I probably never would have picked up this book at all if last November hadn’t happened, so I guess this is one good thing that came out of that shit show.
Henson talks about her background being raised by a struggling single mother in Washington D.C. Her parents had split, but her dad was around and it’s clear she had a very special relationship with him. As she put it, he had more emotional intelligence than most people and that has influenced, not only her life, but her work. I had seen an interview with her in which she talked about how Cookie is based on her dad and she talks more about that in this book. She talks about how some of her best lines were ad libs inspired by things her dad said and that will definitely influence my appreciation of Cookie going forward.
Henson then talked quite a bit about her craft and how hard she worked to get where she is now. She’s essentially a method actor who spends a considerable amount of time studying her characters and their mentality before the filming starts. Not only has it gotten her parts, it’s gotten her an Oscar nomination and an Emmy nomination. I’ve always liked her as an actress, but I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been blown away by her. I’ll be taking a closer look at her from now on, although my mom and I have been wondering why she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for “Hidden Figures.” We liked Octavia Spencer, too, we just though Henson was better and that her character had more development in the course of the film.
I had more than a few favorite stories from this book, the first of which came when Henson was describing her silent, not-so-small part in the stage version of “Dreamgirls.” Henson takes very seriously the notion that there are no small parts and it sounds like she proved it on that stage.
My other favorite story was about her role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which I had actually completely forgotten she was in. I only saw it once when it came out and I wasn’t a fan, so I’ve blocked most of it from my memory because (as usual) I prefer the short story it was based on. But after hearing Henson talk about her role in that movie and how hard she worked, I’m almost tempted to rewatch it just for her … almost … maybe I’ll just watch her and fast forward through everything else.
Mostly I appreciated Henson’s candid descriptions of the challenges of being a black woman in America and in Hollywood. She described an incident in which armed police showed up to break up a gathering of unarmed students, creating a violent incident for which the black students were blamed. She describes that as igniting her awareness of her race and inspiring her to study practically every piece of writing and art created by African Americans, and how she has tried to raise a black boy in America who is aware of his race and its challenges, without diminishing his power.*
Her story about how little she was paid for “Benjamin Button,” relative to what her costars received, is infuriating. She talks about the Sony hack and quotes Jennifer Lawrence’s response to that mess in saying that they don’t want to seem ungrateful, they just wanted to be as valued as their white male costars. At the same time, they’re pretty much stuck, because if they turn down a shitty offer, there are a thousand girls ready to jump up and take their place.
On the other hand, Henson’s determination to turn her grief and anger over the situation into an Oscar nomination is nothing short of inspiring.
*I have to wonder what her son thinks of this book. She goes into pretty deep detail about certain parts of his life and their relationship and I wonder if he’s really OK with it or just pretending it’s not happening.
What did you guys read/listen to this week? Anything else you wouldn’t have picked up had it not been for current events?