“Proud Mary” is definitely not perfect, but it damn sure deserves better than it’s been given.
[This essay contains very minor spoilers for “Proud Mary”]
Don’t believe anyone who fixes their lips, or their fingers, to bad mouth “Proud Mary” and paint it as an irredeemable disaster. It may not be as sleek and polished as similar projects like last year’s horribly convoluted “Atomic Blonde” or other various action-packed features that other actresses like Charlize Theron have starred in, but it’s still a damn good watch.
It is beyond refreshing to see Taraji P. Henson in a role that would typically be given to actresses like Theron, Milla Jovovich, Angelina Jolie, or Scarlett Johansson, but frankly, “Proud Mary” was not made with the kind of resources, care, and attention that Sony Entertainment should have given it. It had a 14 million dollar budget. Compare that to the 30 million for “Atomic Blonde”, 40 million for “Lucy” (2014), and 110 million for “Ghost in the Shell” (2017).
Sony intentionally sabotaged this film, and hurt its own box office numbers. There were no critic screenings held or Thursday night premieres, both of which have become standard at this point. Most egregiously, the few Thursday night premieres that were scheduled were hastily canceled only an hour before the film was set to be screened for early audiences after they had already purchased their tickets. This not only impacts the box office, but also ratings.
Keep in mind that Sony is the studio at the center of the 2014 email hack that revealed the blatant racism and anti-Blackness of Hollywood that audiences and performers of color already knew existed. From insensitive jokes made about former President Obama’s movie preferences — with “Django Unchained”, “12 Years A Slave”, and Kevin Hart films among their insincere guesses — to an attempt to blacklist Denzel Washington from leading roles because “pictures with an African American lead don’t play well overseas, ” a long-held myth that has been disproven again, and again, and again.
Taraji addresses this school of thought herself in her comments about Sony’s flat-out refusal to promote her film.
“[Studios] never expect [black films] to do well overseas,” she says. “Meanwhile, you go overseas and what do you see? People trying to look like African-Americans with Afros and dressing in hip-hop fashions. To say that black culture doesn’t sell well overseas, that’s a lie. Somebody just doesn’t want to do their job and promote the film overseas.”
Dissenting reviews of the film and Taraji’s performance in it oscillate between insisting that Sony buried the film out of shame for how terrible it allegedly is — calling it “bad filmmaking” without properly and fully contextualizing the lack of care it received from Sony in the first place — and the criticism that “Proud Mary” doesn’t allow Taraji to deliver the same kind of performance that she did for projects like “Hidden Figures” (2016) — demanding something from her that this kind of role does not need. This feels very much like a case of moving the goal post.
It would not be a reach to say that Sony simply had no faith in a film led by a Black woman in the arena of women-led action films that has been dominated by white women for many years, despite Pam Grier’s role in pioneering this subgenre as Foxy Brown during the Blaxploitation Era of the 1970s. Consider just how many assassin/secret agent/hitwoman/badass fighter flicks already we have starring white actresses and the amount of press they have received both before and after their release. Contrast this with the treatment of “Proud Mary” and the disconnect is exceedingly apparent.
“Proud Mary” feels like an attempt at reclaiming that Blaxploitation Era aesthetic by placing Taraji at the center. A Black woman on the screen allowed me to see myself in this story in a way that the likes of “Atomic Blonde” never could. I identified with her. I understood her. I connected with her.
Mary is a complex and multifaceted antiheroine who is aware of her faults and knows when she’s fucked up. As the reluctant princess of a crime family, she is a hitwoman with secrets and aspirations to become something more. When she crosses paths with Danny, a fearless and precocious kid, her desire to change her life grows and she hopes to change his as well.
With Danny, she is a comforting, caring Black Auntie who is always trying to feed you, but also don’t take no shit, drinks Hennessy straight from the bottle, and casually delivers tried and true Black American proverbs like, “If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.”
Danny is smart and defiant, an even match for Mary’s own stubbornness and sarcastic demeanor. Together, the two have great chemistry and establish rapport quickly. They identify with each other and find a common ground where the stakes are high and the motivations are clear. They just want to make it out alive.
Rarely do Black women get to see ourselves on-screen as anything other than Beasts of Burden, mules, or pitiful figures. Taraji hopes that we will start seeing more of Black women at the forefront of action films again, and so do I. Ask Black women how we felt watching “Proud Mary” in theaters and we will plainly tell you: Powerful, affirmed, seen, and of course, proud.
The story is simple and familiar, the action isn’t high-octane, and the fight choreography isn’t elegant. There’s plenty more that went wrong in the filmmaking process with this project, but it is ultimately still a fun watch, and many of its issues could have been easily remedied by Sony being more invested in a Black woman-led action film. “Proud Mary” is definitely not perfect, but it damn sure deserves better than it’s been given.