Taraji P. Henson's new film uncovers forgotten black history

Taraji P. Henson’s newest big screen project is called From the Rough, and the Oscar nominated actress is excited to share the independent film with the world.

Based on the true story of Catana Starks, the first African-American woman to coach an all-male NCAA golf team, the movie is an inspirational tale about determination and dedication.  Starks was charged with putting together Tennessee State University’s first men’s golf team.  Besides her race and gender being seen as obstacles in the overwhelmingly white and male world of golf, Sparks also had the added hurdle of learning the game of golf.

Previously the swimming and diving coach at TSU, Starks had only played golf recreationally when she got the new job. She had to learn the game and learn how to coach it. Unable to lure African-American golfers from more elite and established golf programs, Starks took her search worldwide and cobbled together a racially and ethnically diverse team from all over the world. By the time Starks ended her coaching career, her men’s golf team became national champions with a record that still stands today.  It’s a story that has all the makings of a classic Hollywood coach drama.

In an exclusive interview with the Grio, Henson talked about why she took on the role of Coach Starks. “I’d never seen her story done before. Just reading about her tenacity and her faith. Wow!” exclaimed Henson.  “We never think of women coaching men. We know that it exists, but we never see it. When is the last you saw a movie where a woman coach was the center of the story? We have men coaching women’s teams all the time, but we never see it the other way around.”

Indeed, plucky inspirational coach dramas bring to mind films like Remember the Titans, with Denzel Washington as the lead.

In the 1986 film Wildcats, Goldie Hawn starred as the coach of a high school football team (Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, etc), but that was a comedy and not based on real life. From the Rough is a true story about recent history (TSU’s ground-breaking national championship win was in 2005), and Catana Starks is a living example of fortitude and perseverance.

“I read the script, and I understood her struggle. Before we actually met, we talked on the phone, and I asked her all kinds of questions. I wanted to know what she was going through at that time and what parts of the screenplay were true and what parts were added on by the writers. They had to add a little Hollywood sprinkle dust on it to get people in movie seats,” said Henson.

Henson is a seasoned professional who has played numerous roles on the stage, the small screen and the big screen, but playing a living person brought on added pressures. Plus, Starks was on set during the making of the film. “I asked her if she felt like I should look like her, talk like her, walk like her and all of that, but her response put me at ease. She told me she didn’t care about that stuff; she just cared about getting the story out there and empowering women,” said Henson.

From the Rough is a coach drama with a female lead and a strong supporting cast.  In one of his last film roles, the late Oscar-nominated actor Michael Clarke Duncan is the wise custodian who seems to have everyone’s ear. Henry Simmons of NYPD Blue fame is the former athlete turned college administrator who makes Starks’s job as complicated as possible.

As Henson noted, there were some creative liberties taken with the narrative and the timeline, but the gist of the story remains the same: a black woman coached an all-male, Division 1 NCAA team to a national championship.  One of Starks’s student athletes went on to become the swing coach for Tiger Woods, and several others went on to success in golf and other careers.

Henson hopes to continue to hone her craft in front of and behind the camera.  “I’m just an artist. I read scripts, and I get attracted to the stories and the characters. That gem of a character could be on stage, could be an independent film, or it could be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button type of movie. You never know, so I always keep my options open. I also have a couple things in the works on the production side,” said Henson, who shocked fans when her character on Person of Interest died last season.

When asked what biopic she would like to star in that hasn’t been done yet, Henson had a quick answer. “There are so many stories out there, but I’d have to say Eartha Kitt.  I’ve always been a fan of hers, but I was just talking to a girlfriend about an interview she did where she talked about compromise. She has a great story. I’d love to do that and other ones too,” said Henson.

From the Rough is in theaters nationwide tomorrow.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.