Taraji P. Henson in ‘What Men Want’
Image: Jess Miglio (Paramount Pictures)

What Women Want was a rom-com that came out in 2000 and starred Mel Gibson as this deplorable single playboy who was given the gift of hearing women’s thoughts. Fast forward 18 years later and there’s a reboot of the classic, What Men Want, starring Taraji P. Henson and now, she’s got the gift of hearing mens’ thoughts.

But this ain’t your momma’s reboot. Will Packer and director Adam Shankman (Bringing Down the House, Step Up) have teamed up with Paramount Pictures to give us a gift of Taraji leading in a romantic comedy!

Earlier this year, The Root attended a set visit, to swat flies in Atlanta for What Men Want. [Full Disclosure: Paramount Pictures paid for hotel accommodations for the set visit.]

During the set visit, Adam Shankman said, “If you go back and look at that Nancy Meyers film, what was very interesting is that Mel Gibson’s character is so reprehensible and yet he seemed to be able to get away with it because he was a white man.”

Shankman continued, “When the script is being developed and we were talking, her behavior didn’t feel like it could be as bad. Everybody was nervous, like, ‘Oh if she’s bad, then oooh.’ And I was like, she can be bad, but she needs to learn a lesson. But then you put someone like Taraji in it who is so winning and likable, people are gonna like her!”

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Correction. People love Taraji! Will Packer gushes: “Taraji hasn’t done a comedy really since she and I did Think Like a Man. I always felt like in that movie she was underutilized because I know how funny she is.”

On this particular day of the set visit, they were filming the movie’s wedding scene in a church, which wasn’t the original plan, but the rain made Will and his crew roll with the punches.

Me and the fellow black journalists who were invited met Will Packer and his cast at various times, tucked away in what felt like a meeting room in the church.

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Packer’s energy filled the room. He’s visibly excited about making a movie with Taraji as his leading lady. “Taraji personally makes me laugh with who she is as a person,” Packer shared of his choice of our favorite black girl magician’s star power. “She was like, ‘I want to do a comedy so bad.’ She’s like, ‘I’ve been the put-upon, downtrodden, in pain, Cookie, all the roles, I’m so tired. I just want to laugh.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, you can be as silly as you wanna be on this one.’”

And it’s true. Much like Packer’s last flick, Girls Trip, you get to see black women be their full selves. Packer says, “We pull no punches. We allow the characters, especially the women characters to be like loose, authentic, just like speak the way they want to.”

We got a chance to chat with Will Packer, Adam Shankman, Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge and Phoebe Robinson about What Men Want, representation in romantic comedies and more.

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The Root: What made you decide to reboot this movie with a black woman lead?

Will Packer: Doesn’t it feel so appropriate right now? If you think about, it was Mel Gibson, a white man who can hear the thoughts of women and uses it to his advantage. That feels very 1990, 2000, whenever it came out. If you’re gonna do this movie in 2019 and beyond, you gotta have a sister in the center of that. You got to have a woman of color, a strong woman of color, she’s in power and she uses that to her advantage, she wins over the men.

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Those are the things that are really resonating right now. Those are the things that are really working that we’re seeing it. Of course, my stuff is always going to have that strong character. If you’re making a movie right now and women need men or they’re not fully empowered or they’re not censured in the stories, then you’re leaving a big portion of your audience out, you’re not feeling authentic and resonant with the times.

TR: How do you feel as a producer about the idea of being black first?

WP: I’m proud of the fact that I have movies that put us in front of the lens. But it’s not about doing that at the expense of other audiences. You’re welcome to come. We’ve been in your world forever. We watched all your movies. That’s what we grew up on because that’s all we had. Make the world feel universal because that’s the truth.

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Within the industry, we still don’t have black executives at the highest level of power like we should. So that’s a separate thing and that’s something that we’re all kind of pushing against and fighting. Success begets success. And the more successful you are within the industry, the higher you will be able to climb. It’s good that anytime you have a project, no matter what the project is, you have a black executive, black writer, that person will be able to go on, get more work, get bigger, better budgets and work at higher levels and hire other people.

It’s not just black people, I think there’s a lot of diverse representation we haven’t had because for so long, Hollywood was just a patriarchy. It was just really literally, ‘Who is the white male star of the moment and how many movies can we put him in?’ That worked for a while, now the world looks very different than it looked in the ’80s.

TR: The world is always hypercritical of black women. How will you receive or combat the criticism that is sure to come about a black leading lady?

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Adam Shankman: Let it be honest. Let it go to the full monty. And no one will care.

WP: When we get to a place as a creative community, where we don’t have to have those types of conversations, and as long as we’re being true and honest to the storytelling and we can do that with anybody, we can do it with black women, we can do it with Asian men, gay men, Hispanic women, when we get to that point ... you didn’t have people that had diverse voices in the room. They didn’t understand.

Nobody asked that about Carrie Bradshaw. Gab[rielle Union] was the first. Before Kerry Washington was sleeping with the president, before Viola Davis, you had Being Mary Jane. You had Gab on BET. I give all props to Mara [Brock Akil] and Gab, they created a character who was very flawed before it was the cool thing to do. The more we’re honest about who these character are, the easier it will be.

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TR: Aldis, as the love interest in the movie, can you tell me, are there any grapefruits in this movie?

Aldis Hodge: [laughs] I’m not gonna say yes, I’m not gonna say no. What the film does in a smart way is address what women deal with on a regular basis as they try to navigate through a male-dominated space and in their personal life as well. She has to address her own femininity.

She deals with the love space, whether or not it is love or not love. There’s different reasons why she evolves as a person throughout the film.

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TR: Are women of color ready to take the lead in comedy, despite many people in the industry doubting us?

Phoebe Robinson: I think we’re still seeing so many comedies and romantic comedies don’t have women of color at the lead. Women of color aren’t necessarily the love interest, the main person that’s being pursued. They’re the best friend.

In this case, we’re all in relationships. Taraji’s dating around and it’s really nice to see that on-screen. I’m really pumped that this movie is going to be just another one hopefully in a line of movies that’s going to show that women of color have fun, go on dates, sleep around a little bit; they get their Prince Charming or they decide to choose themselves instead.

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What Men Want hits theaters Jan. 11, 2019.