It’s well over an hour into Proud Mary before we hear Tina Turner’s cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” It plays over an absolutely stunning sequence in which Taraji P. Henson’s hitwoman Mary speeds through Boston, gets her car pumped with bullets, and gets her John Wick on shooting up a gaggle of gun-toting men. It’s a shame you have to sit through the rest of the movie to see it. The answer to why Sony has tried to bury Proud Mary from critics is now clear: It’s boring as hell.
At some point, Hollywood needs to reckon with how it treats Henson and black women in general. Henson is a fantastic actress. She is surely the only reason people are still watching Empire, she’s an Academy Award-nominated actress, and she most recently starred in Hidden Figures, one of 2016’s most successful films. So what did she do to deserve a made-for-TV movie like Proud Mary?
The film’s biggest weakness is that it’s not particularly an action film. The trailers have sold it as a shoot ’em up action flick similar to Atomic Blonde and the upcoming Red Sparrow, and yet there’s barely any action sequences in the film aside from a crime-family bloodbath in the center of the film and the aforementioned dazzling climax. The trailers have hidden the fact that Proud Mary is actually a family drama. Mary is a hitwoman who kills a man and leaves Jahi Di’Allo Winston’s character Danny an orphan. One year later, he’s selling drugs on the streets and working for an abusive crime boss. Mary kills the crimes boss to protect Danny and takes him into her home, which sets of a chain reaction of warring crime families. But where you’d expect a John Wick-style killing spree to ensue, we instead are subjected to emotional scenes between Henson and Billy Brown’s Tom, her ex, and Danny Glover’s Benny, Tom’s father and the crime boss who took her in as a teenager.
Far too much of the film is devoted to Danny grappling with trusting Mary and reclaiming control of his life. The movie is called Proud Mary and I came to see Henson shoot up some motherfuckers and the film does not deliver enough of this.
Atomic Blonde was all over the place plot-wise, but one thing it had going for it were several breathtaking action sequences starring Charlize Theron and one of the bloodiest, most grueling film climaxes of 2017. Red Sparrow makes it look like Jennifer Lawrence is going to be a ballerina with a heavy body count and, this week, Marvel finally greenlit a Black Widow movie where we’ll presumably see Scarlett Johansson’s Russian assassin kick ass for two hours. It’s a shame that a highly anticipated female action flick starring a black woman strips her of the ability to have fun and kill without remorse—after a retro title sequence that promises a Blaxploitation aesthetic the film never delivers, Henson spends most of the film’s runtime crying, begging Brown and Glover to let her out of the family business, and fussing over orphan Danny like she’s Ving Rhames in Holiday Heart.
There’s often an effort to make black women maternal figures in pop culture, as if it’s their duty to be our moral guides. We’ve seen this in the feverish social-media responses to black female voter turnout in Alabama and the obsession with demanding Oprah Winfrey run for president to save America from itself. At every turn, Henson’s Mary is forced to be maternal to the young boy she’s made an orphan. It’s fine as a twist leading into the second act, but Proud Mary manages to skip the part of the film we all came to see: Henson kicking ass and taking names like her counterparts Theron, Lawrence, and Johannson.
It’s a shame, because my introduction to action flicks and martial-arts movies came from the black women in my family who would watch them in the den while drinking and playing Spades. It may have been naive to assume Proud Mary would be a gift to those women, a thank you for all the time they devoted to films that didn’t see them as viable heroes. The roles for black women in Hollywood are often limited to the same archetypes: oversexualized or prim and religious.
Regrettably, in an action flick that should have broken that mold, Henson is relegated to playing a hitwoman who’s racked with guilt for 89 minutes. And a desexualized one at that. In most action flicks, love is a contact sport. Theron manages to mix business and pleasure in Atomic Blonde, but Proud Mary doesn’t even let its heroine have a chaste kiss.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Henson lamented the opportunities afforded to women in Hollywood, “When women get older in this business, they tend to send us out to pastures; meanwhile, you have Liam Neeson, however old he is, still kicking ass in Taken and Denzel Washington, who, at any given drop of a dime, will do an action film. Fuck that. If men can do it, why can’t we? I feel like women get better as we age. Give us the same chances as you give men.”
Sadly, it turns out that women do get to kick ass at the drop of a dime in action flicks. But only the white ones.