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Taraji P. Henson says she's passing the 'Color Purple' baton to a new generation

Taraji P. Henson plays singer Shug Avery in the new film <em>The Color Purple.</em>
Warner Bros.
Taraji P. Henson plays singer Shug Avery in the new film The Color Purple.

Empire star Taraji P. Henson was a 15-year-old high school student in Washington, D.C., when she first saw The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg's 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Immediately she knew she wanted to be an actor.

"Seeing all of those Black people on the screen ... they just inspired me to make my dreams come true. To get out of my zip code," she says, "I was like, 'Oh my God, I really want to do that.' "

The Color Purple tells the story of Celie Harris, the traumas she endures as a Black woman living in the South during the early 1900s — and the sisterhood that helps sustain her. In director Blitz Bazawule's new version, Henson plays Shug Avery, a jazz singer who becomes Celie's confidante. It's a role that Henson was offered — and declined to take — during the Broadway run of The Color Purple.

"I just knew that my voice would not withstand eight shows a week singing at that capacity," Henson says. "So I turned it down. And then, as fate would have it, [Shug] came back to get me."

Henson notes that awareness of generational trauma has increased in the decades since the release of Spielberg's version, and she hopes that this new interpretation, which co-stars Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks and Halle Bailey, will offer both healing and inspiration.

"[I hope] some young girl or some boy is going to see the possibilities through my role as Shug," she says. "We get to pass the baton to somebody else, to this next generation of viewers and Color Purple fans, because you got to realize this is going to be a brand new audience to the story."

The film opens on Christmas Day, and Henson plans to take her entire family to the theater to see it — including her 99-year-old grandmother: "I'm going to sit right next to her and watch her every expression," Henson says.

Interview highlights

On how the cast of The Color Purple handled the seriousness of the subject matter

If you've been watching us on this press tour and you see the joy, it's very real. We made sure, particularly me, I made sure to make sure we laughed on set because I know we were dealing with such a heavy subject matter. This being Fantasia [Barrino]'s first feature role and, you know, all of the things that Celie had to carry, I kind of watched her closely. And if there was a moment where we can insert some joy and she didn't need to stay in that dark place for the next take, I was there to surely, you know, lift that, lift the mood and let her live a little bit and breathe in between those takes.

On having the confidence to move to Los Angeles and make it in Hollywood, when she only had $700 to her name

I'll tell you what prepared me for that, and that was my training at Howard University. I have to give them the credit that they're due because the training that I went through there was rigorous and it was unrelenting. Like you had to show up and show out. If not, you would be replaced. They didn't care how light your skin was. They didn't care how pretty your hair was. They didn't care how thin or thick you were. You had to have the talent. And so I trained hard there, and I knew that I made a name for myself at Howard. I did. I was the one that didn't come from the musical art school, the performing arts school. I didn't come from there. I came from public school. I had to climb up that ladder and prove myself. And once I did it there, I knew I could do it anywhere — because they didn't play.

On getting to be an extra on the set of Spike Lee's film Malcolm X

I was still in college, and honey, you couldn't tell me I wasn't going to be a star. Spike Lee is going to look deep into my eyes of a sea of a thousand. But there's one thing: You can actually see me. My mother, God bless her heart. My mother found her baby in the crowd in the sea of a thousand as she paused it. You can even hear my mouth. You can hear me going "All right! Yes, sir," you can hear me.

On starting a foundation for mental health in the Black community, Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation

I was looking for a therapist for myself and my son and I couldn't find one that looked like me. And then I call Tracie Jade Jenkins, my best friend since the seventh grade, who also had her issues with anxiety and panic attacks for as long as I've known her. ... And we cry about it now. We cry about what we laughed about back then because of sheer ignorance. We just did not know. Black families don't talk about it.

And so when I called her and I was like, "Wow, I can't find a Black therapist. This is crazy." And we started talking and I was like, "Well, you know why that is?" And I'm like, "Because we don't talk about it at home. So these babies don't know that this is a career that they can even go into." I said, "We have to do something about this." Because I'm a privileged woman. I can afford $350 a pop for a session. But what about an entire community that don't even talk about it, much less can afford it? So I just felt inclined to do something because my entire career I had been asked, "Do you have a charity?" And I wanted to say yes, but it needed to be something that mattered to me. And this was just organic. Like it matters to me that we are walking around so broken. That bothers me that we have these generational curses that we can't find our ways out of. And so I just want us to heal. I want us to feel free enough to be not OK.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.