Houston, we have a problem.
Hidden Figures star Taraji P. Henson is not known for holding back, onscreen or off. The outspoken star has long championed for respect as a black actress, speaking out about lobbying for equal pay and fighting racism in Hollywood, even as an Oscar-nominated actress. She’s also well-known as a cheerleader of other black women in the field, so much so that several GIFs have been created in her honor.
“There was only one role for all of us black women when I came to Hollywood,” Henson recently told Porter Edit. “But I always saw enough work for everyone. I never thought I was fighting. You create your own job. That’s how I was raised.”
In fact, in a recent cover story for the magazine, entitled “What Women Need,” Henson was customarily candid about career issues affecting black women, like the pay gap, declaring, “If you come to Taraji P. Henson, you need to come with that money, because I earned it.”
She also commented on racism in the industry that continues to sell her short, saying, “I hate pulling the racism card but I’m left with no choice.”
And of navigating the industry in the #MeToo era? “You can’t crumble me with a sexist joke,” she said. “If anything, I’m waiting for you to say something so I can check your ass.”
It’s the kind of tough talk we’ve come to expect from the star of Proud Mary, who memorably called out Sony Pictures for not properly promoting the film. But Henson’s seemingly having some trouble keeping that same energy in support of black women outside of Hollywood, as evidenced by a very telling Instagram story she posted on Tuesday.
In the story, which was quickly deleted but captured by followers, Henson scrolls through the many tags created in support of #MuteRKelly before typing in #MuteWeinstein, as if to make a silent point that alleged serial predator Harvey Weinstein is not facing the same indictments and ostracism that R. Kelly is.
She’s right. Weinstein currently has it worse.
As of the writing of this post, Kelly has (finally) suffered a significant hit to his image in the aftermath of Surviving R. Kelly (though is still enjoying an increase in his streaming revenues), has been dropped by his record label (though not by Spotify—see again: streaming revenues), is being evicted from his Chicago studio/alleged sex den, and has garnered enough scrutiny to inspire the reopening of a criminal investigation in Florida, with another possibly pending in Illinois. However, criminal charges have yet to be filed, and Kelly remains a free man.
By contrast, Weinstein (who, by the way, doesn’t need to be muted, since he was primarily a power player pulling strings behind Hollywood’s scenes) has been wearing a GPS tracker since being charged with rape and several others counts of sexual abuse last May, compounded by subsequent charges filed in June, August, and November.
One of these things is not like the other.
But Henson’s stance reflects an ongoing and growing backlash within the black community against Kelly’s accusers. The issue recently came to a head on social media after confusing comments from Henson’s What Men Want costar, Erykah Badu, who expressed sympathy for Kelly during a Saturday night concert in Chicago, followed the hashtag #FirstThem.
The #FirstThem argument? That before censuring or criminalizing alleged black predators like Kelly—or Cosby before him, the long list of white men accused of similar offenses need to be addressed.
The truth? Many of those white men are facing consequences, which is why you know about them. But regardless, if you’re arguing against the immediate investigation and possible indictment of R. Kelly, you’re arguing against the protection of black girls and women—and if you claim to be pro-black but Weinstein’s repercussions are your higher concern, you’re also arguing that his predominantly white victim pool is a higher priority.
In short, if your response to a black woman or girl saying #MeToo is #FirstThem, it’s fairly clear where your care and values lie.
While Henson didn’t use the hashtag, given her prior proclamations of love for the black women with whom she shares space, many were understandably confounded by her stance.
“We see somebody we don’t identify with and the first thing we do is judge, but all we’re put here to do is empathize. It’s my job as the actor to make the audience understand,” Henson told Porter Edit, speaking of taking on less-than-likable roles. “An actor is supposed to conflict you. You’re supposed to be confused.”
We are confused—and try as we might, are having a very difficult time reconciling Henson’s seeming lack of empathy for Kelly’s potential victims, first and foremost. It would seem Henson might be, too, as she swiftly moonwalked back her position on social media. That, or she remembered that she has a soon-to-open rom-com to promote to a predominantly black, female audience.
But as we as a community continue to grapple with how to confront the predators in our midst, what remains most frightening is the prospect that we may not have the support of some of the visible and vocal within our ranks. Henson—and Badu—are far from the first to act against their own self-interests. But if women of color, and black women, in particular, are already consistently placed at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, what does it mean when we we can’t even place our own self-interests first?