While the wage gap is all too real between men and women in Hollywood, it’s even worse for women of color. In her memoir, Around the Way Girl, Taraji P. Henson candidly discusses negotiating her salary for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which she played Queenie, the adoptive mother of Brad Pitt’s reverse-aging character. Even though Henson had done critically acclaimed work in films like Hustle & Flow and eventually received an Oscar nomination for Benjamin Button, she was essentially paid in prestige. Henson says that her actual paycheck was “the equivalent of sofa change” compared to what her co-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett received. Henson writes:
Both Brad and Cate got millions. Me? With bated breath, I sat by the phone for hours, waiting for Vince [her manager] to call and tell me the number that I thought would make me feel good: somewhere in the mid six figures — no doubt a mere percentage of what Brad was bringing home to Angelina and their beautiful babies, but something worthy of a solid up-and-coming actress with a decent amount of critical acclaim for her work. Alas, that request was dead on arrival. “I’m sorry, Taraji,” Vince said quietly when we finally connected. “They came in at the lowest of six figures. I convinced them to add in a little more, but that’s as high as they’d go.” There was one other thing: I’d have to agree to pay my own location fees while filming in New Orleans, meaning three months of hotel expenses would be coming directly out of my pocket. Insult, meet injury.
Henson describes feeling humiliated by the process, but also pressured into taking the part, because of the scarcity of complex roles for black women. Henson writes:
The math really is pretty simple: there are way more talented black actresses than there are intelligent, meaningful roles for them, and we’re consistently charged with diving for the crumbs of the scraps, lest we starve.
This is exactly how a studio can get away with paying the person who’s name is third on the call sheet of a big-budget film less than 2 percent what it’s paying the person whose name is listed first. I knew the stakes: no matter how talented, no matter how many accolades my prior work had received, if I pushed for more money, I’d be replaced and no one would so much as a blink.
That wasn’t the only major insult to happen in Henson’s career, either. She describes how for the film St. Vincent, Theodore Melfi had written the part of Daka, a pregnant Russian sex worker, “specifically for me” and that “he was able to see Taraji Henson outside the box.” Even though she says that she wanted the part, she says she lost the role “because someone with the ability to green-light a film couldn’t see black women beyond a very limited purview he or she thought ‘fit’ audience expectations.” Henson writes, “It was a meaty gig. I would have loved it. Alas, I couldn’t get served at that particular restaurant.” The role ended up going to Naomi Watts.
However, Henson does star in Melfi’s next project Hidden Figures as Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician who worked for NASA. Henson writes, “As it goes, Theodore Melfi had another intriguing project that was even more perfect than the first, and he insisted on casting me as the lead in it.”
But the person she really thanks for getting her the paycheck she deserves is Tyler Perry. After the Oscars in 2009, Perry called to cast her in I Can Do Bad All by Myself. “I was grateful for the work, but even more, I’m grateful to Tyler for putting me on the road to being paid my worth,” Henson writes. “It was he who gave me a fair wage to star in his movie, which ultimately raised my quote — the baseline pay I could negotiate going into subsequent movie deals… It was because of him — not an Oscar nomination — that I never had to take another movie project at the rock bottom of six figures.” Get yours, Taraji!