In PROUD MARY, Taraji P. Henson plays a hit woman who works for a Boston crime family. An ode to blaxploitation films, PROUD MARY is exactly what you’d expect from an action movie. It’s packed with guns galore, bombastic explosions, and impractical leather get-ups fit for a black queen. When Mary meets a young boy after a professional hit goes utterly wrong, the boy, as the official trailer’s cringe-worthy description puts it “sparks her maternal instinct.”

PROUD MARY is Taraji P. Henson’s first movie after the highly acclaimed HIDDEN FIGURES. The movie posed to ride on her HIDDEN FIGURES success and build her as Hollywood’s next action star. PROUD MARY did not deliver to box office and critics’ expectations.

Blaxploitation

Amidst debate around PROUD MARY’s lack of marketing, the few critics who saw the movie panned it as a poorly made, lackluster film. Whether it was the studio’s low confidence in the movie, its predominantly black cast, or both, PROUD MARY encountered a series of issues—beyond its unbalanced storytelling—that many films with black female leads face.

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Despite that, Taraji P. Henson (and much of the cast) shines through clunky dialogue, uneven pacing, and insufficient action scenes. The movie is not great. Nevertheless, there is one poignant reminder audiences will come away with during Black History Month: the role of black female action stars.

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Besides PROUD MARY, think of the last time that you saw a black female action star on screen (outside the Marvel or DC cinematic universe)? You might find yourself struggling to come up with an answer. The dearth of examples shows that Hollywood fails to encapsulate the multi-faceted black experience. But, PROUD MARY gives us a valuable opportunity to reflect on the evolution of black cis-women in action, and that genesis leads back to one star: Pam Grier

If you don’t know her, memorize her name, and seal it in your brain. Born at the height of the post-World War II boom, Pam Grier started her acting career wholly by chance. The year was 1967. Malcolm X died two years prior in Washington Heights, New York, after a brutal assassination. Martin Luther King Jr. would soon encounter the same, tragic fate a year later. Shirley Chisholm geared up for a Congressional bid that would prompt her to become the first black woman elected to the United States House of Representatives.

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At the crux of all of these major turning points, director Jack Hill cast her in the exploitation film THE BIG DOLL HOUSE in 1971. The movie centers on six female inmates, convicted of crimes ranging from drug addiction to murder, and their escape plans. Hill’s early exploitation films provided a stark contrast to the mainstream films such as THE GRADUATE and BONNIE AND CLYDE.

By 1967 standards, his films starred diverse, strong female protagonists, LGBTQI characters, and women of color all fighting against the patriarchal “man.” Grier found a home in Hill’s films and later starred in the 1972 sequel THE BIG BIRD CAGE. Blaxploitation cinema is where Grier rose to fame and found her form as the earliest female action hero.

Pam Grier of blaxploitation fame. Image Courtesy of The Source.
Pam Grier is one of blaxploitation’s legendary actresses.

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The 1973 film COFFY followed by FOXY BROWN, SHEBA, BABY, and FRIDAY FOSTER provided her spaces to express her black identity, sexuality, and physicality in ways Hollywood denied many black women from doing. The fact that Grier could rock her natural fro while taking down drug dealers or pimps was merely unfathomable, but she did it.

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Blaxploitation was a progressive arena to delve into racism, colorism, and capitalism in one shot. However, the films held a deeper, regressive side. Blaxploitation directors coveted toxic black masculinity and domestic abuse themes. The films’ one-note portrayals of black urban life spurred outrage from civil rights groups. By the late 1970s, blaxploitation soon phased out, but Grier’s career kept moving on up.

Her work laid the foundation for her major roles on MIAMI VICE, THE BRONX, and THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR. Along with blaxploitation legend Tamara Dobson, Grier changed the landscape for black women.

Blaxploitation
Courtesy of criterioncast.com

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Soon, the likes of Angela Bassett in STRANGE DAYS, Halle Berry in DIE ANOTHER DAY, Naomie Harris in SKYFALL, and Zoe Saldana in COLOMBIANA kicked through screens. Now, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, and Tessa Thompson are taking off where Pam left off, allowing black women to be represented in multitudes.

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That’s why PROUD MARY’s dismal performance is disappointing. The movie was a tribute to Grier’s blaxploitation films. The film quickly forgets about this dedication after ten minutes. PROUD MARY demonstrates the limits on black women’s roles in kick-ass films. Even the above films have constraints.

As Ira Madison III points out in his Daily Beast piece, “Proud Mary’ and Why Hollywood Won’t Let Black Women Kick-Ass” films like ATOMIC BLONDE give white female protagonists nuance. They have love interests, hobbies, and desires. PROUD MARY and similar films often desexualize or maternalize black women.

Blaxploitation
Image Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

For black trans women, however, portrayals are even harder to come by. This makes characters such as Mary or Moneypenny smaller than they deserve to be. The same is not afforded to Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington, which Taraji mentioned in a The Hollywood Reporter interview.

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“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,”

Henson pointed out. This sexism is an aspect Henson wants to removed from Hollywood’s DNA.

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Like 1967, 2018 marks turning point in Hollywood. Necessary change is coming. 2018 and Black History Month should mark a time for reflection. It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come and how easy it is to move back. So, when you’re watching Ocean’s 8, think about “the meanest chick in town,” who paved what it means to be a black woman in action.

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