For a few minutes, Babak Najafi’s Proud Mary suggests a sexy and earthy modernization of the blaxploitation thriller. As the opening credits roll, hitwoman Mary (Taraji P. Henson) showers and suits up for work, in black leather, while the Temptations’s “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” plays on the soundtrack. This brief moment of erotic reverie capitalizes on Henson’s agency and magnetism, proving that she can stand alongside the likes of Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier without breaking a sweat. And like those icons, she’s most fascinating in repose. But Proud Mary can’t compete with the likes of Gordon Park’s Shaft and Jack Hill’s Coffy, as it’s a so-so action melodrama with an insulting whiff of generic blaxploitation stylistics.
The time is ripe for the resurgence of blaxploitation, as the racist, classist conditions that inspired the genre remain uncorrected. Loose and sleazy, the blaxploitation film is about an oxymoronic mood of empowered hopelessness, in which people of color beat the Man at his own rigged and exploitive game. These films have many offshoots, but almost all have vigilantes at their center: black equivalents to the reactionary white avengers of Michael Winner’s Death Wish and Jack Siegel’s Dirty Harry. Blaxploitation is less about plot than the opportunity to revel in the personalities of the actors, the visceral grit of the streets, and the romanticism of the soundtracks, a few of which remain legendary. The films’ lack of polish signifies their unpretentious, keeping-it-real bona fides, which also intoxicate white audiences who are bored with the sanctimonious platitudes of prestige cinema.
Proud Mary, though, only has Henson to prop it up, which ultimately isn’t enough, as the film’s atmosphere is impersonal and its plot is limp and busy. Mary adopts 12-year-old Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), the son of a man she killed, and they share a moment in which they recognize the mutual danger they feel as people of color working the streets of Boston. But otherwise the film goes to great efforts to expunge blaxploitation of its social and political subtext. The narrative exists in a bubble, involving a dull and endlessly expository war between black American gangsters and the white Eurotrash that one often encounters in down-market action films. The frequent use of Russian and Slavic caricatures in these films serves a gross purpose: to absolve the filmmakers of having to give their villains personalities, with the implicit reasoning that their accents and luridly awful teeth render them inherently evil. They’re bad guys that both white and black American audiences can resent without scrutiny. (Of course, one of the gangsters is played by Rade Serbedzija, who’s made a career of this stereotype.)
Much of Proud Mary consists of scenes in which Mary tries to sort out when to tell her boss, Benny (Danny Glover), and his son and second-in-command, Tom (Billy Brown), about Danny’s history in their organization’s affairs. Mary and Tom are exes, and one scene between them, in which Tom simultaneously questions Mary about Danny and their own potential reconciliation, alluringly weds sex and exploitative professionalism (shades of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious). About 70 of the film’s 89 minutes, however, involve people talking in rarefied and blandly noir-ish sets while a paint-by-dots score drones in the background, attempting to manufacture an illusion of suspense. One may yearn for a sexy and funky score, to complement the largely pointless yet welcome use of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and, inevitably, of Tina and Ike Turner’s “Proud Mary.” Where’s Curtis Mayfield when you need him?
Najafi’s autopilot direction doesn’t earn the rough and volcanic righteousness of those classic songs. Even the film’s action scenes are disappointing, passing by in blurs, leading to a climax in which Mary effortlessly prevails, rendering her fear of the organization she targets retrospectively ludicrous. Proud May has no soul, no true style, and no understanding of the various film traditions that it inexplicably goes out of its way to sanitize.