By Donte Slocum
Empire is not only a ratings monster, the show has introduced the gifted and vivacious Taraji P. Henson to mainstream audiences. Her portrayal of Cookie Lyon, the tough, bombastic, matriarch of the Lyon family has earned her accolades, applause and adoration. And on Sunday, Henson became the first African-American actress to win the Critic’s Choice TV Award for actress in a drama, proving that the not so cuddly Cookie Monster has taken America by storm.
However, despite all of the recent attention and acclaim she’s received, Henson has been putting in steady work for over 15 years, making her feature film debut in John Singleton’s 2001 release, Baby Boy. Even in her screen debut as Jody’s (Tyrese Gibson) frustrated girlfriend, Henson displayed her signature fire and enthusiasm.
Henson isn’t all pyro and flair, however. Her filmography is full of prestige and versatility. While Hustle & Flow served as her Empire co-star Terrence Howard’s big break, Henson delivers a sweet, understated performance as Shug, Howard’s love interest. She even shows off her singing abilities in the film.
But the earliest precursor to Henson’s performance as Cookie can be seen in director Kasi Lemon’s under-appreciated 2007 film, Talk To Me. Playing Petey Greene’s (Don Cheadle) girlfriend, Henson stole all of her scenes, making an energetic and entertaining film all the better.
Though winning a Critic’s Choice Award for what’s shaping up to be her signature role is a crowning achievement, Henson is no stranger to critical acclaim. In 2008, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where she starred alongside Brad Pitt. Queenie raised the backward aging Benjamin Button, representing pure maternal instinct and kindness. The role was truly a breakthrough opportunity for Henson, and a fundamental building block in establishing herself as a marquee actress.
Every artist must be an eternal optimist at heart. At the same time, every artist also prays not to be pigeonholed into a certain role. Cookie Lyon and Henson will always be linked together, but her history shows she will continue to evolve as a performer, and this role will likely launch her into even greater heights.
Season two of Empire premieres September 23 at 9 p.m. on Fox.