There’s been a quiet uproar over Proud Mary in the film critic community, particularly in what we call “Film Twitter” — that is to say, the online presence that film critics maintain on Twitter. It has a supposed release date of today, but it’s barely showing in a lot of theaters. I saw it last night in Boston, but that’s likely because it was filmed in and takes place in Boston. It was nowhere to be found in most other major cities.
This was disappointing for a number of reasons, most predominately because the working theory was that Screen Gems didn’t feel that an action film starring a black woman would succeed. Even when that woman is Taraji P. Henson, who recently wowed critics and audiences with her performance in the much-lauded Hidden Figures. It was particularly interesting because the film is also directed by Iranian Babak Najafi, adding an interesting angle to its cultural pedigree. The film stars Henson as the right fist of a Boston crime boss, responsible for cleaning up messes and killing enemies, until she stumbles across a young boy (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who gives her new purpose, even as a war breaks out between the local crime families. It co-stars some respectable talent — Danny Glover as her boss/mentor/father figure, Xander Berkeley as a creepy Russian drug lord, even Neal McDonough pops up for a bit. It had a cracking trailer a few months back, but then… silence. The film was buried in the cinematic graveyard that is January, there were no critic screenings, and it seemed mostly forgotten.
Which led to the aforementioned speculation that Henson couldn’t carry a film, much less an action film. It was disappointing, to be sure. But I had to take the chance to see it, and see it I did, in a theater with three other people last night. I was all in for this one — I love Henson, the trailer looked fun, and the soundtrack sounded killer. And much as I hate to say it, Film Twitter missed the mark on this one. Proud Mary wasn’t buried because it featured a black woman as the lead. Proud Mary was buried because it’s simply not a very good movie. In fact, it’s kind of terrible. Najafi, who most recently blew shit up with London Has Fallen, might be one of the most inept directors I’ve seen when it comes to creating emotion and tension onscreen. Henson tries hard enough, and her chemistry with her young co-star is fairly sweet, but save for two solidly filmed shootouts, the rest of the film is an utter mess. It’s poorly shot, terribly edited, woodenly acted, and frankly, boring. The pacing is a slog, and any time Henson is onscreen with anyone other than Winston, the film grinds to a painful halt. Even her charming rapport with the young man can’t save the film from some awful dialogue.
It’s disappointing for a number of reasons, and what’s frustrating isn’t that the critical speculation is wrong, but rather that it’s misdirected. After seeing Proud Mary, what’s most annoying is that Henson deserves better. Black women deserve better. There’s a good movie buried in this mess, a story about redemption and revenge and sins of the past, taking place within diverse communities that lays bare some of the truths and tragedies that take place, about poverty and power dynamics. Using the same soulful soundtrack and Henson, this could have been something rather beautiful. But instead, they took a rose and planted it in a dumpster. Henson shines in this, but it’s a dull shine because so much around her is so terrible. Instead of being the thoughtful action debut of an established star, it feels like one of those direct to VOD releases that you see Cuba Gooding, Jr. or John Cusack starring in, last grasps for money while the death rattle of a dying career sounds around them.
I don’t doubt for a moment that good films with POC stars still get buried or worse, never made. This is the rare outlier in that the studio was probably, unfortunately right in trying to kill it. It would have bombed spectacularly with a wider release, and justifiably so. Proud Mary is simply bad filmmaking. Let’s hope that Henson can shake it off and move on to the bigger and better things that a presence like hers deserves.