Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson recently opened up about the vast pay disparity between Black actresses and their non-Black counterparts in Hollywood in an emotional interview on CBS Mornings. Henson claims she was paid a mere fraction of what her white co-stars earned for films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and says she’s tired of “fighting for crumbs.”
Henson Was Paid Significantly Less Than Pitt for ‘Benjamin Button’ Despite Similar Screen Time
In the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Henson starred alongside Brad Pitt as Queenie, the woman who takes in Pitt’s character. Despite Henson and Pitt sharing nearly equal screen time in the film, Henson revealed she was paid an “insulting” amount compared to Pitt:
“I believe Brad Pitt made $7 million, and I made $150,000. That math ain’t mathing,” Henson said.
In fact, Pitt was reportedly paid $20 million for the film. This enormous gap for what amounted to a leading co-starring role highlights the vast racial pay gap that still exists in Hollywood.
Fight for Fair Pay Drove Henson to Tears During ‘The Color Purple’
Henson also recently reprised her Tony-nominated Broadway role as Shug Avery in the musical film adaptation of The Color Purple. But she nearly walked away from that project due to more unfair pay. Choking back tears, Henson told Gayle King:
“I was asking them to pay me at least half of what they were going to pay the Oscar nominee, and I thought that was fair. And they said ‘no.’ When I realized I was getting paid maybe a sixth or seventh of [the Oscar nominee’s pay], I walked away.”
Henson said Oprah later talked her into taking the role despite the pay disparity. But fighting that exhausting battle clearly took an emotional toll:
“I’m tired of fighting for crumbs when I’m breaking my back to carry entire productions and franchises on my name and standing on my talent alone,” she shared.
|Taraji P. Henson’s Salary
|The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
|Brad Pitt: $20 million
|The Color Purple
|1/6th to 1/7th of Oscar nominee co-star
This table highlights the vast gulf between what Henson has been paid compared to her higher-profile co-stars.
Success of ‘Empire’ Failed to Improve Treatment of Black Actresses
Henson also pointed out that even starring in a highly successful TV series failed to improve how she and other Black actresses are compensated in Hollywood. Henson starred on Empire from 2015 to 2020, which broke ratings records when it launched. But that success didn’t translate to better pay or treatment:
“Everyone wants to capitalize off of Black women’s success and our allure at the box office and what we can do on television,” Henson said. “But then no one wants to pay us what we’re worth.”
She added that the mantra for studios seems to be “Yeah, she’s valuable so let’s snatch her up before the price goes up.“
“I Might Just Walk Away” from Acting, Henson Says
After years of fighting this uphill battle, Henson confessed she’s nearing her breaking point:
“I might just walk away because I’m tired of it. I’m really just tired of fighting for crumbs.”
The emotional toll of repeatedly having to fight for fair compensation compared to her lesser-known white peers has worn on the Academy Award-nominated actress.
While Henson isn’t ready to quit acting yet, she warned “I might have to go rogue and create opportunities for other Black actresses and myself together.” Doing so may be the only path forward if Hollywood refuses to close its racial pay gap.
Support Pours In from Black Hollywood
In the wake of Henson’s emotional revelations, fellow Black actresses quickly spoke up in support.
Keke Palmer said “She’s right. The math ain’t mathing.” Palmer pointed out the entertainment industry operates like any other business focused intensely on profits.
Similarly, Gabrielle Union tweeted:
The only “house” that matters that a Black actress can build is the White House built off her undervalued Black Woman shoulders in this industry.
The Cast of The Woman King also released a public statement saying:
We stand with Taraji and every Black woman fighting to be paid her worth, at a bare minimum the same as her counterparts…The systemic undervaluing of Black women must stop in 2023!
This flood of support highlights that Henson’s experiences with vast pay gaps are far from unique in Hollywood.
What’s Next After Henson’s Bold Stand?
Henson’s willingness to openly discuss Hollywood’s racial pay disparity has brought renewed scrutiny to the issue. But whether her stand sparks any meaningful change remains to be seen.
The actress hopes speaking out will at least prompt honest dialogue on why pay inequality persists:
“At least sit me down so I can understand the economics of how this works because the math ain’t mathing.”
Without transparency on how salaries are set, battling pay discrimination becomes impossible.
Studios could proactively address inequity in 2023 by committing to equitable pay standards and regular external audits. But if not confronted, Hollywood’s racial pay gap seems likely to persist unchecked. That may drive more Black talent like Henson to walk away for good.
Only time will tell whether Henson’s stand marks the start of positive change in Hollywood, or further entrenches the status quo she is fighting. But her willingness to speak openly about pay discrimination provides a crucial spotlight on this long-ignored issue.
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