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Taraji P. Henson’s salary issues point to a larger problem in Hollywood

The pay gap for Black women continues to persist.

A photo of actress Taraji P. Henson sitting in front of a microphone being interviewed on Sirius XM Radio
How did a conversation about pay disparities in Hollywood turn into a story about two Black women fighting?
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Amid the press tour for the musical film adaptation of The Color Purple, actress Taraji P. Henson has sparked new conversations in the fight against pay inequality for Black women in Hollywood.

Henson has set the internet ablaze, getting candid about the dispiriting work conditions on the movie set and the problem of industry pay disparities that she says exemplifies the unfair treatment that Black women entertainers routinely deal with in the industry. Now, Henson is opening up about the toll working in the industry has taken on her mental health, and fellow actors are chiming in to validate her experiences.

The firestorm started with an emotional SiriusXM radio panel interview with Gayle King on December 19, 2023. Sitting next to the film’s director and leading stars, Henson said she’s “tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, [and] getting paid a fraction of the cost.”

Henson, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for her supporting role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and won a Golden Globe in 2016 for her portrayal of Cookie Lyon on the Fox television drama Empire, among other accolades, said she had to start from the bottom in contract negotiations for The Color Purple, despite her past achievements.

Holding back tears in the interview, she said: “It seems every time I do something, and I break another glass ceiling, when it’s time to renegotiate, I’m at the bottom again, like I never did what I just did, and I’m just tired. It wears on you.”

Henson has been vocal about this longtime Hollywood issue — but she ended up having to shut down internet sleuths who blamed the failures of The Color Purple on the film’s only Black female producer, Oprah Winfrey. So how did this conversation about standards for women of color in the industry get spun into a story about two Black women having beef?

Are Oprah and Taraji feuding?

In late December, once TikTok and X users learned of Henson’s issues on the film set, they started searching for someone to blame. They analyzed press tour images and videos and concluded that Oprah Winfrey, who is a producer for the film and starred in the 1985 version of it, was at fault. Users focused on video from a December 12 promotional appearance where the cast members and Winfrey gathered atop the Empire State Building. In the video, Winfrey and Henson appear to have an awkward exchange, which led social media users to believe that Oprah was the source of Henson’s troubles on set.

But Henson pushed back against almost immediately. She took to Instagram to explain that, as she put it, “Ms. OPRAH has been nothing less than a steady and solid beacon of light to ALL OF THE CAST of The Color Purple!!! She has provided ENCOURAGEMENT, GUIDANCE and UNWAVERING SUPPORT to us all. She told me personally to reach out to her for ANYTHING I needed, and I did!”

Conditions on set only changed once Henson called Winfrey to voice her concerns, a revelation that squashed TikTok conspiracy theories that Oprah was responsible for the unfair conditions.

When Gayle King asked her famous best friend about the “feud” in an interview on the Golden Globes red carpet, Oprah explained that the internet has it wrong. “It’s so disturbing to me. Why is my name even in this conversation? [...] ’Cause I have just been the champion for everybody,” she said. “The thing that is so upsetting to me is that … something went viral where they’re analyzing us on top of the Empire State Building. We were cold! It was cold.”

Oprah explained that once she learned of the challenges on set, changes were made. She personally made a call to Toby Emmerich, who was at the time the head of Warner Bros. Other X users pointed out how critics were quick to blame Oprah, the only Black woman producer on the film, while Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders, and Quincy Jones were also producers.

What happened on the set of The Color Purple?

In the past few weeks, Henson has drawn attention to the poor conditions surrounding the filming of The Color Purple, which cost about $90 million to make and $40 million to market.

Henson took issue with having to audition for the role of Shug Avery, despite being director Blitz Bazawule’s first choice for the part. “Oftentimes in the industry, you can be the director’s choice but not the studio’s, so I had to audition,” she told the New York Times. “I had to sing, dance, and they read me. I was like, ‘Ouch.’”

In the SiriusXM interview, Bazawule expressed similar outrage over the casting process for all of the actresses, including Fantasia Barrino Taylor, who plays Celie, and Danielle Brooks, who plays Sofia.

The director addressed his actors directly, incredulously, about the “ fact that each one of you, every single one of you had to audition for this role, roles that were second nature to you.”

According to Bazawule, the team would have benefited from having the studio allow him to choose the actors, in the same way that director Ryan Coogler was able to choose people whom he “loved and trusted” during the making of Black Panther.

“No one should tell you who to pick for this work. It is sacred work,” Bazawule said. “I hope the work we did breaks those terrible and discriminatory ways. They get to see that we did it our way and we won.”

During additional interviews and appearances with the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and the Hollywood Reporter, Henson expressed other grievances. In an interview with the New York Times, she explained how the cast of the Warner Bros. film were made to drive themselves to work in rental cars, and weren’t initially given food or their own dressing rooms or trailers.

According to Henson, the production also lacked basic amenities, such as car or van services to transport them to set each day, a common industry practice. “I can’t drive myself to set in Atlanta. This is insurance liability, it’s dangerous.” she told the Times. “So I was like, ‘Can I get a driver or security to take me?’ I’m not asking for the moon. They’re like, ‘Well, if we do it for you, we got to do it for everybody.’ Well, do it for everybody! It’s stuff like that, stuff I shouldn’t have to fight for.’”

Henson’s decision to speak out and its ripple effects so far — countless observers in and outside of the entertainment industry have said they identify with her struggle — shows that pay parity is still out of reach for Black women and other women of color. And the struggle for pay equity is multigenerational. Taraji noted that this fight is much bigger than her. It’s also about the actresses in line behind her and how industry leaders perceive the value of Black women more broadly. “I’m tired of hearing my sisters say the same thing over and over. You get tired.” she said in the SiriusXM interview. “If I can’t fight for them coming up behind me, then what the fuck am I doing?”

The complaint echoes concerns that Brooks raised at a Hollywood Reporter event alongside cast members and Winfrey about not initially having individual dressing rooms or trailers during filming.

“I remember when we first came in and we were doing rehearsal and they put us all in the same space and we didn’t have our own dressing rooms at the time,” she said, adding how they also weren’t given food.

Henson has repeatedly said that she almost walked away from the role during contract negotiations. “I haven’t had a raise since [the 2018 film] ‘Proud Mary,’ and I still didn’t get a raise. They don’t care, they’re always looking for a deal and trying to pay you the least amount,” she told the New York Times.

“I see what you do for another production, and when it’s time for us to go to bat, you don’t have any money,” she said in the SiriusXM interview. “They play in your face. And I’m just supposed to smile and grin and bear it. Enough is enough.”

As Henson explains, this goes far beyond the Color Purple set. She describes fighting for trailers that weren’t “infested with bugs” on the set of Empire, and marketing teams telling Black actresses that they don’t “translate overseas.”

“I’m not the person that pulls the race card every time, but what else is it, then? Tell me,” she told the New York Times. “I’d rather it not be race, please give me something else.”

This isn’t the first time Black actresses have sounded alarms about disparities in the industry

This wasn’t the first time Henson raised the issue of pay equity. On a 2021 appearance on The Real talk show, she explained that less than $75,000 made it into her pocket for Benjamin Button, while her co-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett made millions.

Actress Gabrielle Union, who has previously spoken out about pay disparities for actors of color, wrote on X in late December of Henson’s remarks, “Not a damn lie told. Not. A. Damn. Lie. We go TO BAT for the next generation and hell even our own generation and above.”

Actress Viola Davis shared a video clip of Henson’s SiriusXM interview in a post on her Instagram feed with the caption “This!!!! THIS!!!” Henson’s activism mirrors Davis’s. The rare EGOT winner said in 2018 that “I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver. … They had the same path as me, and yet, I am nowhere near them — not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, nowhere close to it.”

She added, “I have to constantly get on that phone” to “hustle for my worth.” Davis estimated that actresses of color get paid “probably a tenth of what a Caucasian woman gets,” which, she noted, “is half of what a man is getting paid.”

X users also pointed out parallels to comedian and actress Mo’Nique, who has been ostracized for highlighting pay disparities for Black women in contract negotiations since her Oscar win in 2010. In 2019, she filed a pay discrimination lawsuit against Netflix over what she said was a $500,000 lowball offer for a comedy special, in which she claimed that she faced racial and sex discrimination at the hands of the streaming giant. Netflix filed several unsuccessful motions to get the lawsuit dismissed and settled in 2022.

Henson said her refuge has been to diversify where she puts her energy, including her hair care line and other side projects. “This industry, if you let it, it will steal your soul. But I refuse to let that happen,” she told King.

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