Untangling the Drama Behind The Color Purple

Photo: Arturo Holmes//The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images

People do not usually feud with Oprah, at least not publicly. That’s why it was jarring to see Taraji P. Henson speak out about the disrespect she faced on the set of The Color Purple, a film on which Oprah was an executive producer. Henson’s comments sparked immediate rumblings of a feud between the two women as well as a necessary conversation about the way Black women in Hollywood are constantly disrespected and underpaid. While Oprah has claimed that there is no bad blood between the two women, there is certainly some kind of mess. Let’s try to untangle it.

How did this all start?

Back in December, Taraji P. Henson told The Hollywood Reporter that she was fed up with the industry. She said she was sick of being underpaid and that she had been “fighting tooth and nail every project to get that same freaking quote.”

Later that month, Gayle King asked Henson about her saying she wanted to retire from acting. The Empire star got teary, saying, “I’m just tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, getting paid a fraction of the cost. I’m tired of hearing my sisters say the same thing over and over.”

“It seems every time I break another glass ceiling, when it’s time to renegotiate,” Henson said, “I’m at the bottom again like I never did what I just did.”

This interview went viral, with women such as Gabrielle Union, Robin Thede, and Keke Palmer coming out in support of Henson.

Was that all Taraji said?

After her comments went viral, Henson sat down with the New York Times for a more in-depth interview. In it, she spoke out about racism in Hollywood, pay inequality, and the unfair working conditions on sets like The Color Purple and Empire.

Henson said that she hasn’t had a raise in her pay since the 2018 action film Proud Mary, and that it almost led her to walk away from The Color Purple. “They don’t care, they’re always looking for a deal and trying to pay you the least amount,” she told the Times.

The actress recounted the cast being given rental cars and being asked to drive themselves to set in Atlanta. When she asked for a driver, she was apparently told, “Well, if we do it for you, we got to do it for everybody.” To which Henson responded, “Well, do it for everybody!” Henson also spoke about her time on Empire, during which she says she was fighting for “trailers that wasn’t infested with bugs.”

How is Oprah involved in all of this?

Oprah is one of the executive producers of The Color Purple and definitely the most visible one. She has done a lot of press for the film, serving as its No. 1 supporter throughout awards season. However, when Henson brought up the disrespect she faced during negotiations and on the set of the film, people began to wonder what role Oprah might have played.

On the Golden Globes red carpet, Oprah told Entertainment Tonight that there was no truth to the rumors that she and Henson were feuding. “People are saying that I was not supporting Taraji. Taraji will tell you herself that I’ve been the greatest champion of this film,” Oprah said.

The former talk-show host also claimed that she was quick to step in when there were issues on set. “Whenever I heard there was an issue or there was a problem, there was a problem with cars or the problem with their food, I would step in and do whatever I could to make it right,” she said.

Speaking to her friend Gayle King on a different section of the carpet, Oprah — flanked by the film’s stars Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks — once again said that she made sure every on-set issue was dealt with.

“Everything got handled,” she said. “It’s so disturbing to me because why is my name even in this conversation? I’ve been the champion for everybody.”

Has anyone dared take the anti-Oprah stance?

On Friday, the Root spoke to Mo’Nique, who had no problem railing against Oprah. “What [she] did was, ‘We can treat them like we always treat them, who gon’ check me, boo? I’m Oprah Winfrey,’” the comedian said. “You know everything should have been done when you showed up.”

“So, when Oprah Winfrey sits at the helm and Taraji P. Henson says, ‘It’s an honor that we were handpicked for this movie,’ well, if they were handpicked for that movie, those women should have been taken care of from the moment go,” Mo’Nique added.

Mo’Nique has been vocal about her dislike of Oprah for a long time. She previously  claimed that Oprah was one of the people who had the comedian “blackballed”  and labeled hard to work with following her Oscar win for Precious.

So what now?

Well, it really depends on what happens when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 23. If The Color Purple gets nominated for a boatload of awards, I imagine Oprah will continue having to speak about whether or not she did her job as a producer. If they slink away with only one nomination for Danielle Brooks in Supporting Actress, this probably dies down. That is, until another Black woman is inevitably disrespected by the Establishment and is brave enough to speak up about it.

Untangling the Drama Behind The Color Purple