Race + TV: Taraji P. Henson Isn’t A Person Of Interest On Her Own Show

By TV Roundtable Member Kendra James

Did anyone else know that Emmy and Oscar nominee Taraji P Henson is the third lead this season on Abrams’ and CBS’ new thriller Person of Interest?

No? Don’t be ashamed, because you certainly wouldn’t know given the advertising. The New York billboards feature the white male leads, Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson, and that same poster is the one you’ll see featured in magazines and papers all over, including this morning’s free Metro in NYC. As far as I was concerned these two men were the show’s only leads. I had no idea that an Oscar and Emmy nominated actress was the female star.

When TV Guide gave more of the same on the cover of their latest issue, Taraji took to her Facebook fanpage to speak to her fans:

WOW!!!! TV Guide is NOT including me on the cover with my cast members……..I am the female lead of a 3 member cast and I’m not included on the cover!!!!!! Do you see the shit I have to deal with in this business…..I cram to understand!!!!

The post was removed later and replaced with:

I swear you guys keep my spirit lifted cause it ain’t easy AT ALL for a sister in Hollywood. Your love is God sent!!!! Thank you ALL from the bottom of my heart. Wanted to tell you all this on live TV at the Emmys (if I’d won) but……oh well. Muah!!!!!

Normally, I’m the first to applaud CBS for their diverse casting on their procedural series. CSI, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Hawaii Five-0, and NCIS: LA each feature(d) staring men and women of color. Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior was also led by Forest Whitaker before being cancelled. However, the omission of an Academy Award nominated lead actress from an entire advertising campaign is more than an accidental oversight.

Both Taraji and Forest are the latest actors of color to follow in a trend I have mixed feelings about. While award winning and popular white film actors often make guest spots on network television  you don’t often find them leading shows outside of HBO (and that’s not television, it’s HBO). Award winning Actors of color, on the other hand, seem to be making the transition from their Oscar nominated and critically acclaimed movies and parts to network and cable television. Forest Whitaker, Sandra Oh (Greys Anatomy), Terrence Howard (Law and Order: LA), Lawrence Fishburne (CSI), Viola Davis (United States of Tara, one season), Djimon Hounson (Alias, recurring role) and Don Cheadle (House of Lies), come immediately to mind. Out of the group Sandra is the only one not nominated for Oscar, though she does have a SAG to her name.

While each of these talents certainly deserve to work, why is it they’re taking jobs on network and cable television their white counterparts never would, especially if they’re not going to get the exposure? (Another question to muse on: why are so any of them men?) If we look at the year Taraji was nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we’ll see that she was nominated against Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Marisa Tomei, and Penelope Cruz. Of the five who are the two who’ve had recurring television work since? Viola and Taraji. The same thing happens if we look at Forrest Whitaker, who was nominated against Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gossling, and Peter O’Toole.

For all intents and purposes their fellow nominees are their peers (after all, they’re nominated by their fellow actors and actresses … or at least their assistants) and we can clearly see that they’re not getting the same type of work. (Can you imagine DiCaprio deciding to do a Showtime series, much less a Criminal Minds spin-off? Can you imagine him needing to do so?) Then, when actors and actresses of color are chosen to headline or co-headline a show, are they ever the face of the show? Are they out doing publicity and taking photos for magazine covers? Both Terrance Howard and Forrest Whitaker were given a huge promotional push and CM: SB and L&O: LA were cancelled in the middle of their first seasons. A search for Sandra Oh magazine covers reveals one result for a Marie Claire (Sara Ramírez has two covers to Latina to her name). I counted nine for Ellen Pompeo before I stopped, and didn’t even bother with Katherine Heigl or Patrick Dempsy. Taraji’s beef with CBS’ and TV Guide’s exclusion is hardly a unique one.

It’s bad enough that actors of color aren’t always given the same credit (or role choice) as their peers within the film industry (the publicity department for The Adjustment Bureau would have preferred that you didn’t know Anthony Mackie had a starring role– he was in a good two thirds of the movie. Certainly more than John Slattery). As television leads and co-leads, the opportunities to represent themselves and be represented by the shows they work for should be provided, and yet they don’t seem to be. Women of color especially are pushed to the side of the advertising table; CBS and NBC at least tried with Forest Whitaker and Terrence Howard.

I used to joke that after the failures of Undercovers, L&O:LA, and CM:SB in a one, two, three punch no network show would ever use a black face and the main face in their campaigns again. Given how quickly CM:SB came and went, there might be merit in wondering if CBS chose not to make Taraji part of the ad campaign focus because of the show’s failure and the direction of that particular campaign.

Whatever the reason, for Taraji and others the reality is mostly this: I’m sitting here watching The Big Bang Theory premiere and I’ve seen three ads for Person of Interest so far (two short, one full length). Two ads didn’t feature Taraji at all, and the thirty second ad featured her for a total of three seconds — I timed it. Worse, I know that had it not been for Taraji publicly calling out TV Guide I wouldn’t have known she was on this show. And that’s a shame because there’s no reason that should be the case. They took a shot of the three cast leads. They made the poster. Why aren’t they using it? Because Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson are obviously meant to be the stars of this show.

No one can blame Taraji for taking to Facebook to express her displeasure, and it’s important that even though the post was eventually deleted she had the chance to make her opinion public. It’s especially important for actresses of color like Joi Bryant (Parenthood), Annie Ilonzeh (Charlie’s Angels — who isn’t even listed as a “star” of the show on its IMDB page), Naturi Naughton (The Playboy Club), Maggie Q (Nikita), and Jasika Nicole (Fringe) who don’t have the prestige of an Academy Award nomination behind them, and continue to be underrepresented in advertisment and promotion by the networks that depend on them to show up on set each day and deliver quality work.

Taraji’s experience with Persons of Interest is no more than the latest example of Hollywood’s continuing issue with race and, as the actress her self said, “the shit” a person of color has to deal with in the entertainment industry even when they’d accomplished as much or more as their white counterparts.

  • Tjcannus

    Thank you racialicious team for this post. What Taraji goes through as an actress is why I never pursued acting as a career. I really wanted to go for it, but I just don’t and didn’t have the fight in me. I am glad that she made it, but still she is unjustly treated.

  • Tjcannus

    Thank you racialicious team for this post. What Taraji goes through as an actress is why I never pursued acting as a career. I really wanted to go for it, but I just don’t and didn’t have the fight in me. I am glad that she made it, but still she is unjustly treated.

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  • Gwhiz4

    It’s mind-blowing that Taraji wasn’t included in any of the ads for Person of Interest.  I have to disagree about other white film actors not taking television roles – things are beginning to change a lot – and you can see that reflected in a few of the shows that premiered last month: A Gifted Man with Patrick Wilson and the New Girl with Zoe Deschanel are two that came to mind. Also, many of the Showtime programs.  Fewer films are being made, so actors’ (and directors) film snobbery is lessening somewhat. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michelle-Morris/1232036604 Michelle Morris

       The actor you mentioned above have never been nominated for an Oscar unlike Taraji P. Henson, Don Cheadle, or Forrest Whitaker. At best, they’ve been in movies that were nominated for non-acting Oscars, which is a big difference.

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    :-/

    Haven’t heard that one before.

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    You’re right. I keep forgetting to get my White friends to check over my posts and comments before I submit them. But I’m getting a little better about it.

  • JustSwell

    Why did Taraji delete her original post? I think that is part of the problem. There’s such a fear of offending the sensibilities of the Hollywood community that the actors’ being discriminated against rarely stand up and say what they think is out and out racism. And when they do announce those things, they are quick to retract and mollify. I’ve read articles about models and actors who will go into detail about racist encounters, but WILL NEVER NAME NAMES.

    You can’t win a fight when you won’t fight.

    I’m an actress, dancer and writer. I have not had a breakthrough role. I am pretty, I am smart and I call racism racism when I see it. I will continue to pursue my dream while keeping the dream alive.

    For those who don’t, there’s always room to be part of Hollywood, but they have to remember to stay in the back.

  • Anonymous

    Her name also isn’t on the IMDB page for the show. What is going on?? I noticed also that the black actress in “Charlies angel” is also not on the imdb page(she is obviously in the show picture, but no name/credit). 

  • Guest

    Despite the “logical sounding” justifications posted by “industry insiders” regarding why it’s “understandable” that Taraji was EXCLUDED from Person of Interest promos, the fact remains that if Taraji was a comparable White Oscar/Emmy nominated actress (or a blonde), she would have been featured in her show’s promos REGARDLESS of how many times/or the length of time her character appears in the pilot. 
    I’ve been amazed to see virtual unknown White actresses get top billing/promos when new Fall shows are featured (eg. Playboy Club, 2 Broke Girls, Pan Am, etc.).   
    Also, I find it patronizing/offensive that some think that Taraji is just being “vain” when she JUSTIFIABLY expresses anger/frustration at the disrespectful way she is being treated as a Oscar/Emmy nominated actress in comparison to the treatment her less critically acclaimed cast members have received. 
    To ANYONE who is even remotely observant, it’s OBVIOUS that Black actresses in Hollywood, especially, are NOT treated the same (roles, pay, publicity, etc.) as their White counterparts and I think any attempt to dismiss/defend CLEARLY DISCRIMINATORY practices  just adds insult to injury.  

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/5YW7F65MA5WAVBWEPVR4SVSH7Q Daniel

    It’s pretty sad that network TV was more diverse and ground breaking in the un pc 70′s than it’s ever been since then especially now… Perhaps TV needs another Norman Lear.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/5YW7F65MA5WAVBWEPVR4SVSH7Q Daniel

    It’s pretty sad that network TV was more diverse and ground breaking in the un pc 70′s than it’s ever been since then especially now… Perhaps TV needs another Norman Lear.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/5YW7F65MA5WAVBWEPVR4SVSH7Q Daniel

    It’s pretty sad that network TV was more diverse and ground breaking in the un pc 70′s than it’s ever been since then especially now… Perhaps TV needs another Norman Lear.

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    Not sure what you are reading. My first point was that the only way there are going to be more African Americans on TV is if there is a Black owned and run TV network.

    My second point was that African Americans are not featured in promos because Hollywood thinks that Whites will think it’s a “Black TV show” and then won’t tune in.

    Exactly how am I contradicting myself?

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    Not sure what you are reading. My first point was that the only way there are going to be more African Americans on TV is if there is a Black owned and run TV network.

    My second point was that African Americans are not featured in promos because Hollywood thinks that Whites will think it’s a “Black TV show” and then won’t tune in.

    Exactly how am I contradicting myself?

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    Not sure what you are reading. My first point was that the only way there are going to be more African Americans on TV is if there is a Black owned and run TV network.

    My second point was that African Americans are not featured in promos because Hollywood thinks that Whites will think it’s a “Black TV show” and then won’t tune in.

    Exactly how am I contradicting myself?

  • kim

    Until I read this, I seriously didn’t even know she was on the show. That is sad.

    Thanks for mentioning Anthony Mackie too! He’s one of my favorite actors and his performance was totally ignored in both The Adjustment Bureau and The Hurt Locker.

  • Eva

    In most cases it is race, in others it’s age.  I can see DiCaprio on network TV in about fifteen years.   But TV isn’t so bad, since more people watch TV these days than go to movies (cheaper).

  • Anonymous

    After hearing about this a few days ago, I checked the show’s IMDb page….she wasn’t even listed in the cast there either.

  • Anonymous

    After hearing about this a few days ago, I checked the show’s IMDb page….she wasn’t even listed in the cast there either.

    • Eloncook06

      She is listed now. Interestingly out of the 9 photos of the show on IMDB she is in 1 and she is by herself.

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    I’ve come to accept that television is by and for White people. So I don’t really get upset about this sort of thing anymore. I just look forward to the day when there is an actual Black owned and run network that will feature quality work.

    And about promo ads; Black actresses are always seen for a split second on promos. I’m pretty sure that the powers in Hollywood think that if a Black actress is featured prominently White people might think it’s some sort of “Black TV show”. Like there are really Black TV shows on.

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    I’ve come to accept that television is by and for White people. So I don’t really get upset about this sort of thing anymore. I just look forward to the day when there is an actual Black owned and run network that will feature quality work.

    And about promo ads; Black actresses are always seen for a split second on promos. I’m pretty sure that the powers in Hollywood think that if a Black actress is featured prominently White people might think it’s some sort of “Black TV show”. Like there are really Black TV shows on.

    • Lyonside

      Thing is, wasn’t BET supposed to be that? … and while it was/is occasionally promising, it has gotten lots of valid criticism for promoting stereotypes. And financially, no one network that isn’t a cable premium one can do it alone – just like a theater group finds better talent in a town where other theaters are performing and hiring/schooling actors and building a base. The talent isn’t visibly there (doesn’t get the high profile roles, doesn’t even get called by casting, agents don’t send them out) … and then the directors/producers/casting directors can claim “we don’t have talented actors of color who fit the role”… so they hire white people, again… and the lack of visibility continues. I have no idea what the solution is, but I don’t think separate water fountains are it.

    • Lyonside

      Thing is, wasn’t BET supposed to be that? … and while it was/is occasionally promising, it has gotten lots of valid criticism for promoting stereotypes. And financially, no one network that isn’t a cable premium one can do it alone – just like a theater group finds better talent in a town where other theaters are performing and hiring/schooling actors and building a base. The talent isn’t visibly there (doesn’t get the high profile roles, doesn’t even get called by casting, agents don’t send them out) … and then the directors/producers/casting directors can claim “we don’t have talented actors of color who fit the role”… so they hire white people, again… and the lack of visibility continues. I have no idea what the solution is, but I don’t think separate water fountains are it.

  • http://visceralresponse.com Dina dV

    I would offer a less biased reason for her omission.  After test marketing the ad campaign that featured Henson, the producers and network learned that including her in the materials muddied the perception of the show because she’s only briefly featured in the  pilot and she was scuttled from the campaign after the photo shoot.    I watched the pilot and it lived up to the image the show created with the two-man marketing, but looking at the three person image that was released made it seem more like a super hero show and less like the Batman/Burn Notice/Equalizer/1984 show that it is.  Had they featured her for more than three seconds in that promo they would have included almost her entire performance in the pilot.

    I can understand why she was frustrated, but I feel it was more her Oscar-Nominated (c) vanity that was hurt and not an actual incidence of bias.  I would also point to Boardwalk Empire not using Dabney Coleman or Burn Notice not using Sharon Gless in their first season marketing as incidences of when very well known actors were sidelined to present a clearer image of what the show is about.

    I’ve worked around the industry and know just how difficult it is for any actress to get work once she’s over 35 and that the roles dry up faster when that actress doesn’t look like Laura Linney or Julianna Margulies.  And clearly, a lot of times they just get shunted off to the side when promoting the project.  But after watching the pilot, this is a show with two leads, not three.  She may be a regular but she’s not a lead character, yet. I also think this brouhaha is missing the forest for the trees because had they cast a white man in her role as the police detective looking into Reese’s past, no one would even question why that character, as opposed to the actor playing it, wasn’t in the marketing.

    And by the way, based solely on the opening credits it would appear this is a four-person cast.  Where’s the outrage that Kevin Chapman wasn’t in the marketing?  His role as Fusco was more integral to the pilot’s main action and his role in future episodes was more clearly defined by the end of the episode.

    • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

      *sigh*

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-Gershman/1768560832 Rick Gershman

        Agree 0r disagree with Dina’s point, that’s fine… but she lays out a thoughtful, well-considered explanation for why the debut marketing plan might not have included Ms. Henson, and she gets two “Likes.” Meanwhile, RVCBard contributes all of “*sigh*”… and gets 10 Likes.

        I’m not agreeing with how CBS has handled this — in fact, I disagree with it, because I like Taraji P. Henson a lot, and I too had no idea until recently that she was in this show — but “sigh” is not a useful response to a well-reasoned argument. It’s a “you just don’t get it” response that serves only to be dismissive and provide no proper consideration of the point.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-Gershman/1768560832 Rick Gershman

        Agree 0r disagree with Dina’s point, that’s fine… but she lays out a thoughtful, well-considered explanation for why the debut marketing plan might not have included Ms. Henson, and she gets two “Likes.” Meanwhile, RVCBard contributes all of “*sigh*”… and gets 10 Likes.

        I’m not agreeing with how CBS has handled this — in fact, I disagree with it, because I like Taraji P. Henson a lot, and I too had no idea until recently that she was in this show — but “sigh” is not a useful response to a well-reasoned argument. It’s a “you just don’t get it” response that serves only to be dismissive and provide no proper consideration of the point.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-Gershman/1768560832 Rick Gershman

        Agree 0r disagree with Dina’s point, that’s fine… but she lays out a thoughtful, well-considered explanation for why the debut marketing plan might not have included Ms. Henson, and she gets two “Likes.” Meanwhile, RVCBard contributes all of “*sigh*”… and gets 10 Likes.

        I’m not agreeing with how CBS has handled this — in fact, I disagree with it, because I like Taraji P. Henson a lot, and I too had no idea until recently that she was in this show — but “sigh” is not a useful response to a well-reasoned argument. It’s a “you just don’t get it” response that serves only to be dismissive and provide no proper consideration of the point.

    • Mickey

      RE: Oscar-Nominated vanity – This happens to actors and actresses of color who have been nominated all the time. Even Oscar-winning actors & actresses still have problems. Look at Cuba Gooding, Jr. After he won his Oscar for “Jerry Maguire”, where has he been? I understand what you are saying, but actors/actresses of color, even Oscar winners & nominees, get thrown under the bus FAR MORE OFTEN than their white counterparts.

      • http://visceralresponse.com Dina dV

        I don’t disagree with you or the basic premise of this post.  The dV in my username is my surname which is Hispanic, so I know from the subtler forms of prejudice and bias that openly exist.  And I’ve been called “too sensitive” way too many times to count.  And I still laugh at a show like Burn Notice actually shooting in Miami and still only featuring one Hispanic recurring character who lasted two episodes.

        I also don’t doubt that Ms. Henson’s seen even more than I have because my livelihood doesn’t rely in any way on my looks, as being an actress does. 

        I just think in this specific instance she reacted emotionally to a situation that had a reasonable, non-emotional explanation.  If she and Caviezel switched roles, I wouldn’t expect him to be featured in the pre-show marketing because the character is literally on screen for less than five minutes. 

        If the show lasts, there will be more and more promotion and marketing.  And if it continues her character is likely to become a more prominent figure which would lead to her being featured more in the promotion as well.  But based upon what I saw, there isn’t really any evidence that the decision was made for any reason other than her character wasn’t significant enough to the pilot to warrant inclusion in the marketing since her storyline hasn’t been developed, yet.  Without knowing how she fits, they did a generic photo shoot that says absolutely nothing about the show.

        • Lyonside

          I think the main problem with the industry as it stands, is that this scenario, ” [i]f she and Caviezel switched roles,” WOULD NEVER HAPPEN.

        • Lyonside

          I think the main problem with the industry as it stands, is that this scenario, ” [i]f she and Caviezel switched roles,” WOULD NEVER HAPPEN.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Javan-Nelums/696759111 Javan Nelums

      It’s the same reason with Heroes, they have black people on the show but it’s mostly around white people.

    • BrookLyn

      I work in the industry and let’s be real Dabney Coleman and Sharon Gless were left out because they wouldn’t attract the most profitable demographic.  On the other hand Taraji would bring in the AAs within and outside the 18 -49 demo.   Her being left out was BS.  The only comfort we have is that who the hell subscribes or even reads TV Guide anyway?

    • BrookLyn

      I work in the industry and let’s be real Dabney Coleman and Sharon Gless were left out because they wouldn’t attract the most profitable demographic.  On the other hand Taraji would bring in the AAs within and outside the 18 -49 demo.   Her being left out was BS.  The only comfort we have is that who the hell subscribes or even reads TV Guide anyway?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CORZMWN4U7BGIKZ5ZLU45OC5Y Iggles

    Wow. Reading this made me livid! I watch “Blue Blood” on demand, which another CBS show, and I’ve seen ads for this one ALL THE TIME. Had absolutely NO IDEA a sister was one of the leads, let alone Taraji Henson! I’m sick of how Hollywood keeps erasing and sidelining people of color. This crap has got to stop!

  • Celestialstafford

    Which is why I’m such a fan of BBC’s Luther, starring Idris Elba.  BCC just renewed for a third season, so they’re getting it right.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ankhesenmie Ankhesen Mié

      Ironically, the British often do.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ankhesenmie Ankhesen Mié

      Ironically, the British often do.

    • Eva

      Wow third season?  I think season 2 is starting tonight on BBC America.