Taraji P. Henson, the 47-year-old star of Hustle & Flow, Fox’s Empire, the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, and, as of this week, the crime drama Proud Mary, has given us too much scene-skewering delight—too many chances to gasp at her characters’ naked audacity, admire their moral certitude, cackle at their folly—for us to feel entirely worthy of her talents. Proud Mary, in which Henson plays an assassin who’s simultaneously cold-blooded and motheringly warm-hearted, is unfortunately lacking in such chances. Despite the ferocious confidence of the movie’s title—spunk by way of John Fogerty and Tina Turner—no one here’s got much to be proud of. No viewer will finish the movie prostrate, humbled by its star’s overwhelming talent, because the movie never gives us a reason to be. It’s too aggressively mediocre for all that, and Henson, for her many merits otherwise, is encouraged to deliver a middling performance in kind. The movie knows what makes her worth watching. It simply doesn’t know how to make itself equally worthy.
That’s fine. Bad movies happen to good people all the time. And “bad” doesn’t really get at the problem here to begin with: Better to say that this movie is a missed opportunity. Proud Mary’s heroine assassin, Mary, is a woman who wants out. She wants to quit the business and leave behind the crime family run by her unofficially adopted father, Benny (Danny Glover). But before that can happen, Mary makes the mistake of wandering the apartment of a mark she just killed, stumbling upon the man’s son—who’s playing video games and oblivious to what’s going on—and becoming overwhelmed with guilt. She steals a picture of the son and ends up following the kid around for a year, eventually saving his ass when he falls in with a rival crime family. One thing leads to another and these crime families find themselves on the brink of an all-out war.
It’s a classic story, or rather, a couple of classic stories: the loyal orphan assassin who wants out, and who unexpectedly realizes she’s human. All fair, all fun, but none of it done any favors by the syrupy mass of unjustified sentimentality that Proud Mary becomes—and none of it as exciting as the blaxploitation-chic Henson vehicle the movie’s advertising seemed to promise. A movie titled Proud Mary, with its poster image of Mary and an afro-collage of stilettos, guns, and projects towers taking the place of her hair, really ought to at least have a personality. Such a movie should also have great fight scenes, being that it’s a movie about people who fight (and win) for a living. Proud Mary saves most of the outright fighting for the end, blasting the title song as Henson and her stunt double wind their way through a lifelessly choreographed gun battle against nobody villains. It’s as overdue as it is boring.
The question facing us today is why we—meaning those of us who spent the last week wondering why the publicity campaign for this movie seemed so shoddy—had such high expectations, despite all signs pointing to a mess. The movie didn’t screen for critics, which is usually a sign that the studio either lacks confidence in their product or isn’t banking on critical reception to boost ticket sales. There weren’t any of the by-now standard Thursday night showings, either, which suggests a lack of interest in boosting the movie’s Friday gross, a helpful peg for word-of-mouth and further weekend grosses. What gives? Proud Mary is very clearly a film that could benefit from the momentum of the moment. It’s high season for movies about kick-ass women: Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman last year, and the upcoming Red Sparrow and Lara Croft this year. Henson’s movie is unlikely to benefit from the tide. Sony and its imprint, Screen Gems, seem to want to release the movie with as little fuss as possible.
Seeing the movie more or less explains why that is. But it doesn’t explain why it had to be this way. Proud Mary is a much more modest production than those others. It’s a movie that specifically targets a black audience, most specifically black women, which maybe goes to show how Screen Gems feels about movies made for that demographic: The whole thing reeks of a lack of effort. It’s dissonant. A fan of Henson’s might expect that, by now, the star of international hits like Hidden Figures and Empire might at least encourage a studio to shell out for a slightly more high-end script, a comfortably off-name-brand (but still good) director, or at the very least, more convincing CGI bullet holes: The ones here look about as convincing as carnival tattoos. Even Henson’s cachet with a dependably supportive black audience is failing her here. While Proud Mary went into the weekend tracking an $18 million-$22 million opening weekend, it’s currently set to take in half that amount. One wonders what might have happened if the studio had dared to try harder, not only concerning the movie’s release, but also its production.
It isn’t entirely fair to say that Proud Mary marks a lack of career progress for Henson, who has an executive producer credit and seems more involved than usual in the promotion and release of the film. It is fair to say that some people will walk into Proud Mary expecting to see Henson’s well-earned action breakout and will, like me, walk out with the distinct sense of having been hoodwinked—and of the movie’s star having been underestimated. We now live in the Get Out, Hidden Figures, and Straight Outta Compton era. But while “black movies” overperform here and overseas at the box office, studios remain slow to take risks.
It’s easy to imagine a version of the $14-million-dollar Proud Mary that has a budget to match last year’s Charlize Theron fighting thriller, Atomic Blonde, which cost $30 million dollars to make and earned $51.7 of it back domestically. Theron is the bigger mainstream star, of course, but it’s worth questioning whether, in the case of a prominent black actress, that’s really what explains the difference. Henson’s career, a long back-and-forth between the comfortable lane of modest black hits and more daring attempts at mainstream success, suggests it isn’t.
Anyone who walks into Proud Mary expecting a Taraji P. Henson blaxploitation vehicle understands something about the star that the movie does not: She’s a force of nature. And she’s apparently always been that way. Henson, 47, grew up in D.C., born to a working-class family: a father who worked as a metal fabricator and a mother who worked for years in a department store. A kindergarten talent show taught her she loved the attention of a crowd. As a teenager, she applied to the Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts, but failed to get in. After high school, she enrolled at North Carolina A&T to become an electrical engineer, but she failed pre-calculus. So, back to performing she went, studying theater at Howard and eventually moving to Los Angeles with her toddler son, born when Henson was just a junior in college.
Henson’s breakout film roles—in movies like Baby Boy (2001), where she plays the put-upon girlfriend of the overbearing and embarrassingly Oedipal Tyrese, or Hustle & Flow (2005), in which she stars beside Terrence Howard and Taryn Manning as a pregnant sex worker mothering her desperate pimp through the making of his first mixtape—feel personal, in a sense, drawn from experiences Henson knows firsthand. They drew the blueprint for her career. Her best roles, from Yvette (Baby Boy) to Cookie Lyon (Empire) have a tough-love essence about them, a sense of pride that’s as bountiful and contagious as it is easily wounded. She’s got a mouth, too. Who could forget her daring emasculation of Tyrese in Baby Boy, shouting down his manhood in the parking lot of her apartment building and leaving him no leg, no ego, to stand on? The movie, which was written, directed, and produced by John Singleton, has got a moralistic attitude about overly assertive black women (to say nothing of weak black men) that seems ripped from the pages of the Moynihan Report—I don’t care for the politics of the role. But it’s a wonderful performance: comical yet tough, a thrilling mix of everything that makes Henson’s body language and attitude so readily suited to both bawdy comedy and soap-ready melodrama. There’s a broadness to everything she does, and it’s unabashedly, poignantly, authentically black, even hood—and overwhelmingly humane.
Proud Mary’s error is in being so committed to proving that Henson has the range (which its target audience already knew) that it forgets to treat her like she’s actually in a crime movie. Then again, this is a movie in which a guy spills the secrets of his family’s entire criminal operation after a mere two hours of interrogation, so, fine, maybe being a good crime movie just wasn’t of interest to begin with. But I kept thinking of seeing Vivica A. Fox duke it out with Uma Thurman in Kill Bill as a kid, and the shock of wondering why I hadn’t seen Fox kicking ass like that in a movie before. It seemed like a natural extension of everything she’d already done.
I have a hunch a John Wick-like assassination feast starring Henson would prove equally revealing. Suffice it to say, I was let down when, not five minutes into Proud Mary, Henson’s character switches from being an emotionless assassin to becoming a guilt-ridden liability. Granted, she steals the kid’s portrait so that she can stalk him for a year, but if the rest of the movie were as openly sociopathic as that, I wouldn’t be complaining. Sticking her in another soapy plot in which she navigates the needs of multiple generations of misguided black men is, yawn, pretty old hat for Henson, semiautomatics or no. Proud Mary makes the mistake of trying to sandwich gun battles and crime into another mothering, tough-love Taraji P. Henson movie rather than, more interestingly, trying to see what Henson might make of taking a dip in a bloodbath. Proud Mary isn’t trying to make sense as a movie so much as it’s trying to make sense as a role, as suped up and spit-polished a custom fit for its star as one of those futuristic cars you have to start using your thumbprint.
Better direction might have made that premise interesting, but where Iranian director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) fails is in undercutting the emotional extremes that make Henson so fascinating. There’s something dangerous in the way her Yvette asserts herself in Baby Boy, something thrilling in the precise sense of poise and hyper-intelligence she instills Barbara Johnson with in Hidden Figures. Henson is overdue for a melodrama à la Far From Heaven or a film comedy that gives her as much to do as the gloriously trashy Empire does on TV. (Her upcoming movie about the murder of Emmett Till definitely has potential.) She isn’t “the black Julianne Moore”—she’s Taraji P. Henson—but I imagine her deliberately muting her theatrics with jaded warmth like Moore in Boogie Nights or amping them up maniacally like Moore in Magnolia and I get excited.
Henson’s got knockout punches in her that we aren’t getting to see, and it’s a shame. Like Henson herself, I’m still waiting for movies to catch up to television, in this regard. “Not only would I never be offered a character like Cookie in a movie,” Henson told W Magazine in 2015, “but she doesn’t exist.” If she does, Henson has already played her. It makes sense that she’d excel in the grotesquely performative world of Lee Daniels, meanwhile, given some of her influences. I was thrilled to learn, for example, that Henson is a devoted fan of the great Bette Davis. “When I did my first film, Baby Boy, [director] John Singleton’s mother called me ‘Bette Davis Eyes,’” Henson told Harper’s Bazaar in 2015. “So I bought Bette’s entire collection. She can say so much with her eyes. It all bubbles under the surface.” I was even more excited to notice, rewatching Hidden Figures, that she’s got touches of Lucille Ball in her, too, particularly in the flighty antics of her half-mile jogs—in heels!—across the NASA campus to use the Colored women’s restroom, a devastating historical circumstance that Henson nevertheless performs with rich comic irony, over and over again, click-clacking across the parking lot with a stack of binders in tow until the performance, too, proves openly devastating.
Davis and Ball were two actresses who walked the same fine line, between comedy and melodrama, that Henson has routinely walked throughout her career, albeit in different ways. (“I come to drama from a comedy background,” Henson told IndieWire in 2016.) But Ball and Davis, whose careers still weren’t as rich as they could have been, got to work with some of the best directors in Hollywood, including Vincente Minnelli, Joseph Mankiewicz, Robert Aldrich, and Douglas Sirk. Will that ever happen for Henson? An Oscar-nominated turn for David Fincher in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which she claims she was paid 2% of what Brad Pitt earned and forced to pay for her own transportation and lodging, is a start, but it’s simply not enough.
The folly of Proud Mary is in wanting to show that Henson has the range by sticking her with the same old emotional beats as always, albeit in a different genre. It’s movies, and Hollywood, that lack the range: I want a crime movie that gives Henson a chance to show as much. I want to see more Taraji P. Henson roles as spirited as her interviews and as sexy and mod as her cover shoots. The rules of the game say it isn’t as easy as all that. Per the logic of the markets, you’re not going to be able to make a hardcore, nihilistic, unsentimental movie about a black woman assassin and expect to appeal to black women. I want the movie that says: “We’ll see about that.”