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'Proud Mary' and the Pressure on Black Audiences to Support Black Movies

Analyzing the persistent pressure on black audiences to root for products that aren't always very good.
Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary.

Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary.

For all her range and wealth of talent, Taraji P. Henson is not a traditional action star. One can tell this mere minutes into Proud Mary, when Henson fires a gun for the first time. She looks tense and uncomfortable, like someone on her first visit to a shooting range. Henson has played action-adjacent roles before, but nothing like her role in Proud Mary, where she plays a hit-woman who commits murder on screen with a casual calm. Henson's visible discomfort holding and firing weapons isn't the film's biggest problem, but it was an early sign that Proud Mary might not achieve its full potential—especially after the excitement provoked by the movie's trailers, where we saw Henson inspecting vast closets full of guns, driving fast cars, and blowing things up.

Henson plays Mary, an apparently well-established hit-woman tied to a Boston crime family. She begins to unravel when she takes in a young child over the guilt she felt after killing his father. From there, the movie spins into a clumsy series of gang mishaps and attempts at emotional moments that fall flat. Henson is one of the greatest actresses of her era: someone who can be soft, funny, and ferocious in equal measure—sometimes in the same scene. Yet Proud Mary mutes all of her richest qualities in favor of stripping her down to a person suddenly overwhelmed by maternal instincts that emerge full-formed after a puzzlingly short amount of time.

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By now, the problems with the promotion of Proud Mary have been well documented. The film wasn't screened for critics ahead of its release, and some viewers had a hard time even finding the trailers. For me, it was that the sort of trailer that didn't give me very much, even after I saw it a truly comical number of times.

Many fans whose favorite NBA team plays in a different market will subscribe to NBA League Pass, where you can stream games from all 82 teams. On NBA League Pass, commercial breaks are limited because streams are coming from other local broadcasts: Rather than a run of local commercials from Sacramento or Memphis or Denver, you might get a single commercial or two—usually the same two—before cutting back and getting a live feed directly from the arena. This is to say that, for about five weeks in a row, when tuning in to NBA League Pass, I would see the trailer for Proud Mary anywhere between seven and 12 times a night. It was the same trailer—the one that also played before movies I had seen, curiously and indiscriminately peppered before blockbusters like Star Wars or seasonal comedies like A Bad Moms Christmas or indie darlings like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Each time I saw the trailer before a movie, I'd question whether it fit, before deciding that it didn't really not fit, and then I'd I imagine maybe that was good enough.

But perhaps that was the problem with the film's marketing plan: It was a straight action film trying to touch many markets all at once; a film with a black lead and a majority-black cast, a film with a woman in an action role, a film somewhat about motherhood and relationships. There were a lot of audiences to sell to, and it seemed like there was an initial push for it to be everywhere, before distributors decided that it needed to be nowhere.

I saw Proud Mary at the end of last week, long after the complaints about under-promotion gave way to complaints about the film's glaring flaws. I didn't go into Proud Mary expecting to like it, but I still wanted to support it—particularly since I've paid to watch movies that it almost certainly couldn't be any worse (see: A Bad Moms Christmas, above.)

Black film, and black music, and black art tend to generate in a black audience the strong urge to show support, and that has made sense to me more often than not, and driven me to both financially support and sometimes rigorously defend finished products that aren't necessarily of the highest quality. Black art made in the interest of serving black people deserves to have financial support on a structural level (studios and promotion), but it also deserves that support from the audience, among those who can afford to support it with their time and money. Still, just as important as supporting is the duty to hold black art to a fair critical standard, one that holds it accountable for its aims.

Proud Mary is not a good film. Reviewers have laid this out well: It suffers from a poorly constructed plot with a handful of holes that could have been easily filled with more attention to writing. The action scenes are clunky and almost unintentionally comical. The emotional range of the characters is uneven, their motives often unclear. Put simply, the film suffers from not trying hard enough, despite having the bones of something compelling on its hands.

A better question than "is it good," though—the one I asked myself after I left the theater—is whether or not Proud Mary accomplishes what it sets out to do. I have spent countless hours and dollars on mindless action films. I have seen every movie in the Fast and Furious franchise, and I don't particularly go to these films expecting them to be good. I go to them to sit, turn off my brain to any acting or plot holes, and laugh at the heavy-handed comedy and massive explosions that action films provide. A good action movie offers a rare type of escape; a movie can act as a place for a viewer to tune out the world while also being busy enough to drown its more obvious flaws in relentless waves of adrenaline.

My desire with Proud Mary, then, is not to extol it as a black movie, nor to task it with the burden of having to succeed on behalf of an entire population. It is not the fault of black movies and black actors that their success and failure can feel so collectively important—but I am wondering if, in cases like Proud Mary, it might serve the movie best to measure it against the kind of goals that white action films have been aiming at for years: that is, a genre where even a bad one can be good if it manages to be entertaining. Action has a lot of tools at its disposal to make for entertainment, and storyline—so lacking in Proud Mary—isn't always one of them.

What makes Proud Mary bad, in this analysis, is that it can't get out of its own way as an action movie. Every time there might be some chance for momentum, the film is slowed by some uneven emotion or unanswered subplot. There aren't enough explosions to make up for this lack of focus, and there isn't enough heavy-handed comedy to drown it out. Proud Mary fails because it's an action movie that dressed up as a drama and didn't look in the mirror before leaving the house.

I can accept that Proud Mary wasn't enjoyable, in the same way that I'm fine with every other unenjoyable action movie teeming with white stars that I've forced myself through over the years. It was bad, but not painful. Not an immense waste of time, just a couple of forgettable hours, and most frustrating is how the film squandered Henson's immense talent. Frustrating, too, in that Proud Mary didn't seem to get a fair promotional shake. I don't know why the studio apparently didn't believe in the movie, but I don't think it's implausible to speculate that it might have been due to some archaic ideas about selling black films—like, for example, marketing it to the point of saturation during streamed NBA games. (That, and the fact that the film itself simply wasn't that good.) The grand hope I have, though, is that films with black leads and black casts can be bad without our feeling like something fateful requires that an audience carry it on their shoulders until it becomes something beyond what it is. I say Proud Mary is bad and also say I would watch a sequel, and another one after that, and perhaps even another one after that. That's the thing about action movies: They can be made as many times as it takes to get some part of it right.