Taraji P. Henson earned a Golden Globe on Sunday for Best Actress in a Television Series‑Drama for her role as Cookie in Fox’s Empire. With the much-deserved win, Henson joins an elite list of three black actresses who have received the award.
The veteran actress’ vibrant personality dazzled viewers as she passed out cookies on her way to the stage, jokingly chided an audience member for stepping on the train of her dress, and stopped producers from cutting her speech short.
In true Cookie fashion, the Person of Interest alum also used the moment to spit some much-needed cultural commentary about her award-winning role.
“Who knew the role of an ex-con would take me around the world?” Henson said before referencing her previous work, including her Oscar-nominated breakout role in the Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
There’s no doubt Henson deserved a Golden Globe for her role as Cookie Lyon, a woman who spent 18 years in prison and is now staking her claim to her ex-husband’s towering hip-hop record label. However, she raised an excellent point: Black actors are often honored only when they portray criminals or subservient characters.
When Viola Davis won an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series for her role as ruthless lawyer Annalise Keating in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, she said that actors of color can’t win major awards for “roles that are simply not there.”
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said in her acceptance speech.
Henson was present at that awards ceremony; she clapped and cried as Davis accepted the award, giving her a standing ovation.
White actresses like Meryl Streep, on the other hand, are cast and praised for a wide range of roles. Streep has won Golden Globes for playing a hellish magazine editor (The Devil Wears Prada), Holocaust survivor (Sophie's Choice), and a legendary chef (Julie & Julia). The actress is never boxed into a specific role. Instead, nominations follow her because she is deemed worthy of praise.
Black actors don't have the same privilege; they're nominated for racially stereotypical roles where they're either subservient or criminals.
Denzel Washington was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille award at Sunday's Golden Globes. He’s one of the most decorated actors of all time, but has only earned two Golden Globe wins. He won in 1990 for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Glory and again in 2000 for Best Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama for The Hurricane. In the first movie, he’s whipped as a member of the Union Army during the Civil War; in the other, he’s incarcerated for 20 years for a triple homicide.
Washington didn't even win for his stunning 1992 turn as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee-directed biopic.
Similarly, Morgan Freeman won for Best Actor in a Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical for his role in Driving Miss Daisy, but didn’t win for Invictus or Million Dollar Baby. Whoopi Goldberg won for the Color Purple. Mo’Nique won for Precious. Octavia Spencer won for The Help. The list goes on and on. All of these movies focus on black people suffering.
To be clear, all of these actors deserve nominations, but limiting the black experience to these films tells a warped history. Black people are more than our suffering. We’re more than abuse or criminality or slavery. We also deserve to be seen in our joy and our happiness.
When actor David Oyelowo was snubbed from the Best Actor category at last year's Academy Awards, he said at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, “Generally speaking, we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or in the center of our own narrative driving it forward.”
“We have been slaves, we have been criminals, but we've been leaders, we've been kings, we've been those who change the world,” he added.
When Davis didn’t win an Academy Award for The Help, she questioned why black actresses are often delegated to specific roles.
“Do you know the black equivalent of a Meryl Streep? Or a Julia Roberts or a Nicole Kidman?” she asked on the Oscars red carpet in 2012. “The only category is for a strong authoritative hoochie mama. If you exude anything else, you don’t exist. There is no character for you.”
Black actors deserve awards for complex roles that don't involve violence or subservience. At some point, Hollywood will recognize that there’s nuance to the black experience.
But as Henson pointed out, that time has yet to come.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Denzel Washington did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for his role in Malcolm X. He was nominated in 1993.