In college, she wanted to study electrical engineering. But when she failed precalculus, she transferred to Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and earned a theater arts degree. As a student, she also held down a secretarial position at the Pentagon.
Her film roles started off small (she had a bit part in this 2000 animation-live-action hybrid), but she hit it big with "Hustle & Flow," playing Shug, a pregnant prostitute with a talent for singing.
Howard's vocal contribution to the film's keynote song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," helped earn the track an Academy Award.
In "Benjamin Button," she ages almost 50 years on the screen as the mother of Brad Pitt's title character. The performance earned her a SAG Award nomination, and there's talk of an Oscar.
So, what's the meaning behind her intriguing name? "Taraji" means this in Swahili. Her middle name is Penda, meaning "love."
She's no stranger to Hollywood's heavy-hitters. She's performed alongside Terrence Howard, Don Cheadle, James Spader, and Brad Pitt.