Black women and pay inequality, by David W. Marshall

1/4/2024, 6 p.m.
Taraji P. Henson is speaking out, and people are listening. It remains to be seen if the award-winning actor will ...

Taraji P. Henson is speaking out, and people are listening. It remains to be seen if the award-winning actor will become a catalyst for major changes within the entertainment industry, but her message is much needed.

Ms. Henson made her film debut in the 1998 movie “Streetwise” and later received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Queenie in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt.

In 2016, she starred with Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer in the film “Hidden Figures,” which received three Oscar nominations. Ms. Henson perhaps is best known for her role as Cookie Lyon on the television show “Empire.”

During the show’s six seasons, Ms. Henson won two Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe for her performance.

Despite the depth of talent and the success throughout the careers of Black female actors, Hollywood is not immune from the issue of pay inequality for Black women. It is easy for fans to automatically assume television and movie celebrities have “rich and famous” lifestyles free from financial struggles. Ms. Henson has returned the spotlight to one of Hollywood’s many dark sides.

In a recent conversation on SiriusXM, Ms. Henson spoke about how she is still treated as a novice regarding negotiating contracts for film and TV roles. “It seems every time I do something, and I break another glass ceiling, when it’s time to renegotiate, I’m at the bottom again, like I never did what I just did,” Ms. Henson said.

“I’m just tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, being paid a fraction of the cost,” Ms. Henson added. “I’m tired of hearing my sisters say the same thing over and over. You get tired.”

In 2019, she told Variety that she asked for “half a million” to perform in the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” only to receive $150,000. The film was a box office hit, grossing approximately $335 million worldwide against a $150 million budget. Published reports state that Mr. Pitt was paid $10 million for “Benjamin Button.”

Emily Martin, vice president of Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center, noted, “If you look at workers who don’t have a high school diploma, that is the education level at which the wage gap is smallest for Black women, who make a whole 75 cents for every dollar white men because there is more of a cap on lower-wage earners.”

The Equal Pay Act requires “that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work. The jobs need not be identical, but they must be substantially equal.”

That is the law that is often contradicted by reality. One way companies ultimately get around the pay disparity is to encourage employees to keep their salaries private. As a result, the discrimination is not easily discovered.

In addition to Taraji P. Henson’s recent remarks, Octavia Spencer has spoken out many times concerning pay inequality in Hollywood. In 2019, she highlighted the importance of men advocating for fair pay for Black actresses. During Ms. Spencer’s salary negotiations for the Netflix series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” Executive Producer LeBron James was forced to intervene on her behalf. Mo’Nique, an Oscar winner for her Best Supporting Actress role in the movie “Precious,” sued Netflix for alleged gender and racial bias regarding negotiating her salary. The lawsuit was eventually settled.

Beyoncé, the former Dreamgirls actress, said it best, “But unless women and men both say this is unacceptable, things will not change. Men have to demand that their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters earn more—commensurate with their qualifications and not their gender…” Her words are true in addressing the issue of pay disparity everywhere, not just in Hollywood.

The writer is founder of the faith-based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body.