“Empire” star Taraji P. Henson attended the graduation ceremony at her alma mater Howard University in Washington, D.C., Saturday and delivered a stirring commencement address.
Before delivering the speech, Henson was awarded with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for her accomplishments in the entertainment industry.
“I would like to take this moment to reintroduce myself: My name is Taraji P. Henson, Howard University class of 1995,” she said, taking the podium.
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In her address, Henson got candid about her experiences and struggles in Hollywood as a single mother, including being paid only $100,000 for her role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, despite the $167-million price tag on the film.
Regardless, Henson said she gave everything she had to prepare herself for the audition process, using her experience at Howard’s Ira Aldridge Theater to guide her.
“I had been too well-schooled in auditioning for roles at the Ira Aldridge to not show up or try to phone it in or to not be prepared. You know I did my homework,” she said.
“At the end of the day, I saw $30,000,” she said of the “Benjamin Button” role, after taxes and other expenses. “I was angry. I was disgusted, and I was hurt. But instead of stewing in that negative space, instead of becoming cynical, I decided that I would allow hope — not hurt — shape my work.”
She also got candid about crafting the Oscar-nominated performance for the role of Queenie in the movie.
“[Queenie] was three-dimensional. She was emotional. She was no-nonsense. She had a big heart. She loved big even though she was living in the Jim Crow South, barely 50 years after the end of slavery,” Henson said. “And in honouring Queenie, I honoured all of our ancestors and sheroes who dreamed of a better future for themselves and then led lives of dignity, grace, and determination, so fiercely that it made our present possible.”
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The 51-year-old recalled that she made the film in the wake of her father’s death, and portraying Queenie helped her to cope with the loss, and led to more opportunities down the road.
“Hollywood may not have paid me what my work was worth,” she said, “but I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to show the world what the countless Queenies had done and what their sacrifices had meant.”
She implored the graduating class, “Find your bigger picture, bet on yourself, and let your peers’ success be your fuel, not your distraction.”
Finally, Henson added, “Howard, I challenge you to take care of yourself mentally and emotionally, as well as physically, because you look too good on the outside to not be doing the work on the inside.”
Also in attendance at the graduation was “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts with the class of 2022, and posed for a photo with Henson, which he posted on Instagram.