Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Why Katherine Johnson From Hidden Figures Looks So Familiar

"Hidden Figures" told the true story of the black women who helped shape America's space program. That's right, NASA wasn't all Operation Paperclip beneficiaries (via History). The film's three leading ladies work at the Langley Research Center: Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) pursues an engineering degree despite segregation in higher learning, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) teaches herself programming and becomes a supervisor in the emerging field of computer programming, and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) joins the group of scientists tasked with getting astronaut John Glenn into space.

"Hidden Figures" was a critical and commercial success, and it was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture. It was not, however, Taraji P. Henson's first film to be nominated for an Oscar. In fact, Henson has been working steadily in film and television since the '90s, which explains why she looks so familiar. Here are Taraji P. Henson's most recognizable roles.

Henson breaks out in Baby Boy

Taraji P. Henson was a guest on many random shows in the '90s, such as "Smart Guy," "ER," and "Felicity." But her big break was in John Singleton's "Baby Boy." The film starred Tyrese Gibson as Jody, although Singleton's first choice for the role, per Film Colossus, was Tupac Shakur. After Tupac was killed, Singleton incorporated the rapper's image into the film as a specter of black men taken too soon. A giant Tupac mural watches over Jody as he sleeps, perhaps informing the nightmares the character has about getting shot.

Henson played Jody's girlfriend, Yvette, and much of the film centers on what Jody owes Yvette as the father of her child. "Baby Boy" was a critical success and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Roger Ebert gave the film 3 1/2 stars out of 4, singling out Henson as having some of the most difficult scenes in the film.

It's hard out here for a pimp

Taraji P. Henson later starred in the hip-hop drama "Hustle & Flow," which brought the actress to the Academy Awards. Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar for their song in the film, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." The film starred Terrence Howard as a pimp with aspirations of grandeur and hopes of a rap career. Aided by his sound engineer (DJ Qualls), Howard's DJay creates songs and dreams of hitting it big. Singing hooks is Henson as the pregnant sex worker Shug. Shug adds her vocals to songs like the aforementioned "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," as well as "Whoop that Trick."

Howard was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the film. Henson scored nominations from the NAACP Image Awards as well as two MTV Movie Award noms: one for Best Breakthrough Performance and one for Best Kiss with Howard.

Henson brings unconditional love to Benjamin Button

In David Fincher's 2008 drama "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Taraji P. Henson had a supporting role. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the movie follows the titular Benjamin Button as he ages in reverse. Henson plays Queenie, the woman who raises the old man/baby, fosters him with her partner, Tizzy (Mahershala Ali). The film also features performances by Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, and Elle Fanning. 

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was met with critical acclaim, with the New York Times saying it "sighs with longing and simmers with intrigue while investigating the philosophical conundrums and emotional paradoxes of its protagonist's condition." Not everyone loved it, however. The Guardian called it "166 minutes of twee tedium." Still, Pitt and Henson were both nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, and the film won three Oscars in technical categories: Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Visual Effects.

On the path to TV stardom with Person of Interest

Taraji P. Henson also was one of the initial stars of the CBS procedural "Person of Interest." The show conceived of an AI that could prognosticate acts of terrorism, like a very post-9/11 "Minority Report." Eccentric billionaire recluse Harold Finch ("Lost"'s Michael Emerson) programs the "Machine" for the government but gives himself backdoor access to identify persons of interest — people that will be involved in crimes either as perpetrators, victimd, or witnesses. Henson played one of the crew investigating these persons of interest, along with Jim Caviezel ("The Passion of the Christ") and Kevin Chapman ("Rescue Me").

Henson's character was killed off halfway through Season 3. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Henson said that she'd always known her character had an expiration date. "I always knew that we would have a beginning, a middle and an end," she said. "but that's what's so innovative about the show and that's why I joined. We always knew we would do two, maybe three seasons."

Securing an Empire

Almost immediately after getting killed on "Person of Interest," Henson started working on "Empire." Created by Lee Daniels ("The Butler") and Danny Strong (Jonathan on "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer"), "Empire" reunited Henson with her "Hustle & Flow" co-star Terrance Howard. "Empire" tells the story of Lucious Lyon, who has been running a successful entertainment company while his ex-wife, Cookie, served a sentence for drug running. Cookie took the fall for Lucious so that he could run Empire Entertainment, and now that she's out of prison she wants control of the company. Early in the show, Lucious is informed that he is dying and that naming a successor is of the utmost importance. Thus a hip-hop "King Lear" is set into motion. The show also features Bryshere Y. Gray, Jussie Smollett, and Tray Bryers as the Lyon sons.

"Empire" was a huge success in its early seasons, with soapy plotting that kept viewers hooked until story inertia set in and behind-the-scenes drama eclipsed what was happening in front of cameras. "Empire" wrapped in 2020, but not before Henson won a Golden Globe for her role as Cookie. A spin-off starring Henson's character was developed but not picked up by Fox, per Deadline.