RISING MOVIE STAR: Taraji P. Henson In Her Own Flow
By Stephanie DuBois
Pimps and hos and rappers! Oh my!
If you listen to talk radio, no doubt you're aware that many people are still up in arms over what some are calling the ghettoization of the Academy Awards.
First, the Academy honors the gritty film about a pimp trying to break out of the street life by becoming a rapper with two nominations, one for "Hustle & Flow" lead Terrence Howard and one for Best Original Song, "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" by rappers Three 6 Mafia. Harumph.
Then those very same rappers are invited to perform "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" replete with bootylicious hos and mackadocious pimps choreographed into the routine. Say what? Then - Gasp! -- the song won!
Could it have been that very moment that the Oscar ratings dipped some 10 percent from last year as a shocked Middle America tuned out en masse in disgust?
"Hustle & Flow's" Taraji P. Henson, who sang the vocals in the film, on the soundtrack and in the performance of "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" on the Oscar show, says those who are busy snapping to judgments need to look past the surface descriptions to the humanity of the characters in the critically-acclaimed film that defies its own stereotypes.
"At the end of the day it's not your typical hood flick. It's about making your dreams come true at any age," says the Washington, D.C. native, who graduated from Howard University. "This guy, DJay (Howard's character), has a dream at the age of 30 to make something happen and he's trying to get out of the life the only way he knows how. You can't really explain the movie without mentioning pimps and hos, but it has nothing to do with that, really. That's just their way of living. These people are dealing with life the best way they know how and what's the best way to earn a living if you don't have an education?"
Well, there are a lot of ways to answer that question.
Henson, who plays the docile, pregnant hooker Shug in the film, adds, "Art imitates life. Don't beat up on us because we're showing you what society is. And don't beat up on me because I chose to play this character. I really fell in love with Shug and I kept seeing her as a diamond in the rough. My whole thing was how do I want the audience to feel about her and I wanted people to reach in that screen and want to take her out and take care of her. Those are the people we need to reach and they can't identify with half of what they see on the screen today. Changes can be made from the changes you see on screen."
Of course, says Henson, who starred as Tyrese's girlfriend, Yvette, in John Singleton's film, "Baby Boy," typecasting can be an occupational hazard in Hollywood.
"That's why I went to do Lifetime's 'The Division,'" says the actress, who played Det. Raina Washington for three years on the police drama. "Coming off of 'Baby Boy' I became the baby's mama," she says with a laugh. "I kept getting calls for 'Baby Mama This' and 'Baby Mama That...'
"But you can't put me in a box. I didn't go to college and train for nothing. This girl Shug (in 'Hustle and Flow') was so opposite from Yvette, who was like in your face. She was very scared, quiet -- everything about her was nonverbal."
Henson -- who's currently on the big screen with Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker and Blair Underwood in "Something New," and co-stars in the upcoming big-screen comedy, "Smokin' Aces" with Jeremy Piven, Alicia Keys, Don Cheadle and Ryan Reynolds -- says she's in the business for the thrill of the dance.
"I didn't wake up one day and say I want to be an actress because I want to be rich. I got into it because I have this deep passion. Some people said to me after 'Baby Boy,' 'You are about to be a star.' I said, 'I appreciate you saying that but I'm just going to hold steadfast and see what God has in store for me.' It's really hard to deal with the politics in this business, but you have to hold onto your passion and why you do what you do. And it became crystal clear to me that I had to stop comparing myself to others. Everybody's journey is different."
The mother of an 11-year-old son (whose father died in 1997), Henson says, "Maybe I'm supposed to be the female Philip Seymour Hoffman," referring to the actor who nabbed the Best Actor Oscar for "Capote."
"He's like a cult character actor but the roles he plays are so rich... If that means just doing independent films, as long as I'm able to provide for my son, that's fine."
She's not turning a cold shoulder to superstardom, it's just that she realizes "you have to watch what you ask for. Back in Meryl Streep's day they wanted actors to be more separated from society. Now everyone is all up in your business. I'm a single mom raising a black boy in America and I don't know if I really want all that attention. I have a hard time getting it together for the little functions I do go to...trying to figure out what you're going to wear with one eyelash on, one shoe on, while frying chicken...
"At the end of the day it's just a job. It pays the bills," she says. "And as far as the media goes, 33 percent out their could give a s---, another 33 percent loves you and the other 33 percent could go either way. The only 33 percent you want to be concerned about is the 33 percent that loves you."