*Moderate spoilers ahead*
I knew I wanted to review this book instantly, but I had no idea I would have such a hard time deciding what in its wide range of topics I would decide to pinpoint. In fact, my copy is covered in so many highlights and dog-eared pages that I’m not sure I could choose a favorite passage or chapter.
If I had to describe Ms. Henson, the writer, in two words, they would be: exuberant and passionate. When reading the book, one gets the sense they are having a one on one conversation with Ms. Henson over a nice red wine late at night with maybe some jazz and classic R&B playing in the background. It’s an intimate, honest recount of a well-worked, ambitious life that isn’t halfway lived.
From growing up in Washington D.C. to becoming a pregnant college student determined to excel, to single mother with a dream to act that just wouldn’t die, the book is filled with inspirational, true to life, anecdotes that make one realize she is the personification of her name, which translates to ‘hope’ in Swahili. Her heart practically beats out of the pages when she speaks of her troubled father, her hard working mother, and child; she is a woman of many passions, but one in particular really stood out for me as a true testament of her character and work ethic.
In 2008, Taraji P. Henson starred in the David Fincher film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opposite Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, a role she was specifically considered for and one for which she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. She recounts the path leading up to the nomination, one that was not as glamorous as the treatment she received after said nomination. For one, her salary was merely a fraction of what her costars were paid—she briefly tried to negotiate this and was promptly denied–and in addition was required to pay for lodging and travel expenses while filming. It’s important to note that while shooting Benjamin Button, Ms. Henson had lost a close loved one and worked through her grief.
No doubt, Acting is a difficult profession to succeed in, but it is especially the case for actresses of color. In her memoir, Ms. Henson recounts turning down roles to avoid being typecast, and the roles she wanted but didn’t get because film executives decided that catering to a white audience by casting safer, white actresses, would bring in the most money (the role of Daka, played by Naomi Watts in the film St. Vincent, was originally written specifically for Henson but was soon recast with Watts).
In recent years, actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman have spoken out against the severe wage gap between men and women in the entertainment industry, and they have been praised for it, but not enough is said about the more ludicrous wage gap between actors of color and white actors, and Ms. Henson addresses this in the realest, most honest way, the only way she knows, admitting that while she was angry and disappointed during her negotiations for Benjamin Button, she needed to be realistic about the state of the situation and take the job that would keep her child fed and sheltered, something that should not be a factor for someone starring in a big budget film where the two other actors at top billing are being paid figures more.
After being replaced in St. Vincent, Theodore Melfi, the film’s Director and screenwriter, promised he’d have something for her soon, and delivering on his word, from his adapted screenplay, came Hidden Figures, in which Ms. Henson plays mathematician, Katherine Goble Johnson, a role for which she has received much deserved praise and accolades, including, recently, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
Taraji P. Henson’s Around the Way Girl is a success story of all proportions, yes, but it is so much more than that. It’s funny, full of candor, heartwarming and eye opening to the realities of being a black actress in Hollywood. Not that she makes a point to condemn the business, but instead she encourages the reader to regard her success as one that’s been difficult but not impossible, and that shows through her experiences, that one is never competing against our female peers, but alongside them. She sings the praises of actresses like Viola Davis and Regina King and she has not a single bad word to say about any female, which to me is just another star to add after her name. Final verdict? Read it. Sit back and enjoy the ride.