Taraji P. Henson praised Oprah Winfrey as being a "steady and solid beacon of light" in a Dec. 21 Instagram post, seemingly meant to diffuse any chatter of tension between the "Color Purple" star and executive producer.
Henson, in a talk posted Dec. 19, opened up about her experiences with pay disparity as a Black actor in Hollywood during her press tour for "The Color Purple," which she said she "almost had to walk away from" because the initial offer was so low, per an interview with the SAG-AFTRA Foundation.
As soon as fans got a whiff of Henson's exhaustion and frustration regarding unequal pay, many on social media jumped to accuse Winfrey, a cast member of the 1985 movie and an executive producer on the musical film out Dec. 25, of underpaying Henson and other Black actors. Winfrey has said she was only paid $35,000 for her Oscar-nominated role in the original.
Henson diffused the growing anger at Winfrey by defending her in an Instagram post.
"Ms. OPRAH has been nothing less than a steady and solid beacon of light to ALL OF THE CAST of The Color Purple!!!" Henson wrote.
"She told me personally to reach out to her for ANYTHING I needed, and I did!" she added. "It took ONE CALL… ONE CONVERSATION… and ONE DECISION MAKING BLACK WOMAN to make me feel heard."
What did Taraji P. Henson say about Hollywood and equal pay for Black actors?
Henson, a Howard University graduate and Oscar and Emmy nominee, said in two prominent interviews that she is considering quitting acting due to pay.
“I’m just tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, getting paid a fraction of the cost,” she told Gayle King for Sirius XM, through tears.
“I’m tired of hearing my sisters say the same thing over and over,” she said. “You get tired. I hear people go, ‘You work a lot.’ I have to. The math ain’t mathing. And when you start working a lot, you have a team. Big bills come with what we do. We don’t do this alone. It’s a whole entire team behind us. They have to get paid.”
Henson said 80% of her gross pay goes to paying her team and her taxes. Actors’ payrolls usually include an agent, make-up artist, hairstylist, publicist, social media manager, stylist and often other roles.
In a separate interview with the SAG-AFTRA Foundation posted Dec. 19, Henson broke down the hurdles she has faced in getting equal pay.
"I'm really getting tired of Black women having the same story. It's breaking my heart. 20 plus (years) in the game, it breaks my heart. Every time you achieve something really incredible, it's almost like the industry looks at it like a fluke, like, 'Ah, oh, that was some one-time thing.' So you fall back to the bottom. And you got to negotiate and fight tooth and nail to get what you made the last time. When ... where's my raise? I haven't seen a raise in my income since 'Proud Mary.' And almost had to walk away from 'Color Purple,'" she said. ("Proud Mary" released in 2018.)
Henson has historically been transparent about her pay. In her 2016 memoir, she shared that she was paid $150,000 for her Oscar-nominated performance in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," though she asked for $500,000. She wrote in the same memoir that her co-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett received millions. TODAY.com has reached out to Pitt and Blanchett for comment but had not heard back at publish time of this story.
What does Oprah Winfrey have to do with what Taraji P. Henson said?
As soon as Henson mentioned "The Color Purple" in her examples of being lowballed, her fans swooped in to say Winfrey was part of the problem.
"Oprah is far from broke and you mean to tell me Taraji and Fantasia almost walked away because of them being low balled???" someone tweeted on X.
"Reading between the lines, Oprah and co don’t pay Black actors," another tweet read.
"You can’t be an ethical billionaire unfortunately Oprah has been exploiting actors it’s sad," another said.
Then, fans analyzed Winfrey and Henson during a photoshoot on the Empire State Building. Based on their body language, fans speculated, in the comments, that their relationship was icy. In the clip, Henson, Winfrey and "Color Purple" stars and director Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks and Blitz Bazawule line up for a photo opportunity. Winfrey initially stands next to Henson in the middle of the line, then moves to an end.
"Taraji seems like she is fighting back her urge to cry, and it looks like she may feel slighted by Oprah here IMO," one person tweeted.
"Clock it. Taraji went to lean in closer to O, TWICE and O shifted away. Barely even spoke… then went to stand by someone else… why?" another person asked.
What did Taraji P. Henson say about Oprah Winfrey?
Henson defended Winfrey from negative speculation in a caption on her Instagram on Dec. 21, paired with a photo from the Empire State Building photoshoot.
Henson began the caption by writing, "It is so important for black women and ALL women of color to support each other," she wrote. "It is also imperative to have women of color in decision making positions across ALL industries. Thank you for responding to my message with the compassion, understanding and support that I’ve received."
She then clarified her relationship with Winfrey, saying she provided "encouragement, guidance and unwavering support."
"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! It took ONE CALL… ONE CONVERSATION… and ONE DECISION MAKING BLACK WOMAN to make me feel heard. Thank You Ms. @OPRAH For ALL That You Do," Henson wrote.
Are Black women actors actually paid less than others?
Henson is not the first Black woman to speak out about pay in Hollywood.
A clip of EGOT winner Viola Davis speaking at a 2018 Women in the World event went viral in 2020. In it, Davis compared her career to those of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Sigourney Weaver, all white actors.
"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 said.
Gabrielle Union retweeted Davis' clip with the tweet: "This! All day This!"
During a Sundance panel in 2018, the actor Octavia Spencer shared how her former "Help" co-star Jessica Chastain helped her negotiate her salary for a movie Chastain was producing.
"Women of color make far less than white women," Spencer remembered telling Chastain. "She had no idea that that's what it was like for women of color." Spencer said she and Chastain agreed to a "favored nations" strategy, meaning they would make the same amount on the film, which Chastain confirmed in a tweet.
Henson said in the SiriusXM interview that Hollywood studios and producers attribute their offers to her and other Black-led projects to how well their projects fare overseas.
“They tell me we don’t translate overseas,” she said. “I’m tired of hearing that my entire career, 20-plus years in the game, and I hear the same thing. And 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. They play in your face and I’m just supposed to smile and grin and bear it and just keep (on). Enough is enough.”
Henson said what will not happen is letting Hollywood get the best. of her.
“This industry, if you let it, it’ll steal your soul,” she said. “But I refuse to let that happen.”