Taraji P. Henson lights up the screen as Cookie Lyon, the outspoken ex-wife of hip hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), on the hit show "Empire," which just won Program of the Year from the TV Critics Assn. For her powerhouse performance, this one-time Oscar contender ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," 2008) reaped an Emmy nomination as Best Drama Actress. She is the pick of three of our Experts — Matthew Jacobs (Huffington Post), Lynette Rice (Entertainment Weekly) and Jarret Wieselman (BuzzFeed) — to prevail on Sept. 20.
The actress has chosen her episode submission well, entering the pilot for consideration by Emmy voters. Cookie emerges from a 17-year stretch in prison for drug dealing, determined to reclaim her share of Empire Entertainment and bring the family back together. Henson shines in every scene she is in, establishing her character as the one to watch.
In 2011, Henson was nominated for Best Movie/Mini Actress for the telefilm "Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story"; she lost to Kate Winslet ("Mildred Pierce"). While five African American woman have won that award — Cicely Tyson ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," 1974); Lynne Whitfield ("The Josephine Baker Story," 1991); Alfre Woodard ("Miss Evers' Boys," 1997); Halle Berry ("Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," 2000); and S. Epatha Merkerson ("Lackawanna Blues," 2005) — none has taken home Best Drama Actress.
Henson's strongest competition this year is another African American actress: Viola Davis for the freshman season of "How to Get Away with Murder." That hit ABC series is produced by Shonda Rhimes, who is also responsible for "Scandal," a political drama on the alphabet net that showcases Kerry Washington. We expected Washington to be the one to finally end the Emmy shut-out for African American women in this category but she lost, first to Claire Danes ("Homeland") in 2013 and then last year to Julianna Margulies ("The Good Wife").
Prior to Washington, only four African American women had been nominated for this top TV prize:
Debbie Allen ("Fame")
1982; lost to Michael Learned ("Nurse")
1983: lost to Tyne Daly ("Cagney & Lacey")
1984: lost to Tyne Daly ("Cagney & Lacey")
1985: lost to Tyne Daly ("Cagney & Lacey")
Alfred Woodard ("St. Elsewhere")
1986: lost to Sharon Gless ("Cagney & Lacey")
Regina Taylor ("I'll Fly Away")
1992: lost to Dana Delany ("China Beach")
1993: lost to Kathy Baker ("Picket Fences")
Cicely Tyson ("Sweet Justice")
1995: lost to Kathy Baker ("Picket Fences")
Who do you think will win Best Drama Actress? Henson competes in a category with two-time champ Danes ("Homeland"), previous nominees Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men") and Robin Wright ("House of Cards"), and newcomers Davis and Tatiana Maslany ("Orphan Black").
Make your own Emmys picks now starting with this category to the right or at the bottom of this post.
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Photo: Taraji P. Henson in "Empire." Credit: Everett/REX Shutterstock