Disclaimer: I am a pretty big Taraji P. Henson fan. And a champion for Black women, period. But after hearing almost zero buzz about the film (market much, Screen Gems?) and reading the initial reviews I was upset, no devastated that my girl was the headliner for some trash heap action flick. So as I handed my card to the movie theater attendant, I just knew it was going to be the worst $9 I had ever spent in my life. Cue exaggerated eye roll.
So let me begin by saying what I did not like about the film, agreeing with some of the other critics. Stylistically, the film reminds me of my freshman year of college. I had a vague understanding of who I was, but tried to find myself by being a thousand different things. Proud Mary seems to have this same angsty struggle. Touted as an action thriller, the film vacillates from crime drama to suspense thriller to Hallmark special. The choppy editing, dizzying cinematography, and half-formed dialogue dampen the edge-of-your-seat tension usually synonymous with action thrillers. This creates a storyline that leaves a lot to be desired, with complex layers and potential twists alluded to but never explored. Sprinkle in some odd editing choices and a few clunky action scenes, it’s hard to revel in Henson’s badassery. But somehow, she still is a badass.
Henson, who plays the titular character, brings a level of depth and humanity I have rarely witnessed in a femme fatale film. Mary is not so much a femme fatale as a woman who found a way to survive. Also, Henson has more expression in her left pinky than many actors have displayed in their entire career. She makes you feel with one look a myriad of emotion, compelling you to hop in her impractical Maserati and join the fight. This translates amazingly well in scenes with the young boy she rescues, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). The chemistry is amazing and Winston has an emotional depth well beyond his 14 years.
Additionally, the overall narrative is more layered than what I’m use to with films of this genre. There are connections made not only to Mary’s troubled past but to the pervasive socioeconomic issues that plague Black communities. Mary, an abuse survivor, came from a rough neighborhood, and finds family and safety in the arms of a “benevolent” crime boss. Danny, from the same neighborhood, is abandoned by his mom, raised by a criminal father and ends up on the street. He finds his own dysfunctional family that brutalizes him in exchange for “protection.” Proud Mary touches on the cyclical nature of crime and poverty, so intertwined that moving further down the pipeline can feel like a come-up.
The real downfall of Proud Mary is that it is not an action thriller at all. It is a portrait of a Black woman fighting to survive and make amends. In the midst of this struggle, Mary discovers herself and finds love in the most unexpected way. Proud Mary has a level of depth that does not have the chance to develop due to the constraints of the genre, much like Black women struggling to be seen, constrained by the expectations of a world not meant for them. This is apparent in the compensation struggles of Monique and Wanda Sykes, both comedic veterans who were offered less than 4% of their colleagues. Or the inspiring yet maddening account of how Jessica Chastain tied her deal to Octavia Spencer’s to ensure equal pay. Or that time I lost a “friend” who believed that the only reason Oprah Winfrey got a network was because she is a Black woman (extensively long resume and multi-million dollar enterprises aside).
Misogynoir is so normalized that most of us, Black women included, do not realize when it is occurring. And into seeps into absolutely everything. Although it is possible that misogynoir did not play a primary role in the treatment and reception of Proud Mary, it definitely has not been given its due. Meanwhile films like Atomic Blonde, starring a Charlize Theron-shaped mannequin who is really good at punching, received massive press and far kinder reviews. Overall, I do believe that Proud Mary could have been a better film. But I also believe that the film deserved far better than what it got.
I give this film a 3 out of 5 stars.