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In Proud Mary, Taraji P. Henson kicks ass as a hitwoman. So why did the studio try to bury it?

The movie isn’t great, but the lack of marketing behind it suggests some sinister factors at play.

Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary
Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary.
Screen Gems
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Did you know that a rock ’em sock ’em, shoot-’em-up action flick starring Taraji P. Henson was coming out this weekend?

If you didn’t, you’re not alone. Proud Mary hit theaters on January 12, but it wasn’t screened for critics by its studio, Screen Gems (a division of Sony Pictures that specializes in genre and horror films). That means no critics were able to review it before it was released, a factor that also affects the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score (which appears on the Fandango ticket-purchasing page and can factor into ticket sales). And some people seemed surprised by the studio’s apparent attempts to bury the film, which included going so far as to cancel some Thursday screenings:

Henson, who also produced the film, has been critical of Screen Gems’ apparent lack of interest in promoting it; in an article published a week before Proud Mary’s release, she voiced her frustration to the Hollywood Reporter, suggesting that the movie’s predominantly black cast played a significant role in how it was (or wasn’t) sold:

[Studios] never expect [black films] to do well overseas. Meanwhile, you go overseas and what do you see? People trying to look like African-Americans with Afros and dressing in hip-hop fashions. To say that black culture doesn’t sell well overseas, that’s a lie. Somebody just doesn’t want to do their job and promote the film overseas. Do you not have people streaming my Christmas specials in Australia? Come on, y’all! I don’t understand the thinking. Send me over there, and if it fails, then we don’t do it again, but why not try? If I knew this movie was gonna make money domestically, I would try to get more money overseas. It’s business!

Critics who wanted to write about the film had to go see it on Friday morning — which is what I did, joining about 30 other people at an 11:45 am showing in Times Square to watch Henson kick some butt.

So is the film itself bad, as the studio’s seeming lack of faith in it might imply? Well, it’s no masterpiece, to be sure. Some of its elements, like Henson’s performance, are good; others indicate that resources and talent were wasted on a “just okay” action movie that, with more care attention, could have been great.

But wherever it falls on the quality spectrum, the bigger, more concerning story here is that Proud Mary’s journey into the movie marketplace is a good example of how Hollywood still fundamentally doesn’t understand what to do with many movies starring black actors.

Proud Mary is a sloppily made but entertaining story about a hitwoman with a heart and a little boy who needs her help

Proud Mary isn’t, admittedly, going to make any of 2018’s “best of the year” lists. It’s been sold as a ’70s-style action flick centering on an assassin and/or hitwoman named Mary, a sort of John Wick but with Henson in the lead role instead of Keanu Reeves.

The 70s-inspired poster for Proud Mary
The ’70s-inspired poster for Proud Mary.
Screen Gems

That’s not entirely wrong. But the self-conscious ’70s style unfortunately drops out after the first big scene (and never returns), which means the film winds up feeling uneven both visually and as a piece of storytelling.

Mary is a hitwoman, indeed — a crack shot and a badass with a conscience. She works for a Boston crime family boss named Benny (Danny Glover); her former lover is Billy’s son Tom (Billy Brown), who also works for the family. The main plot kicks off when, in the midst of a territory dispute, Mary kills a mark but stops short of killing his young son, Danny (an excellent Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who appears to be about 12 years old. Danny is playing a video game at the time and doesn’t see Mary murder his father, and she slips away before he realizes what’s happened.

Then the movie jumps forward in time to a year later, when Mary has tracked down Danny to check up on how he’s doing. The boy is now working for a man everyone calls Uncle (Xander Berkeley), a rival of Benny’s and a very cruel man. Danny has become hardened after a year of living by his wits, having run away from Child Protective Services and with no qualms about pulling a gun on a man who tries to stiff him. But he’s still really a little boy, and when an injury leaves him stumbling in an alley, Mary picks him up and brings him home, without telling him who she is.

From there, Proud Mary morphs into melodrama, which isn’t automatically a problem. (Whether they admit it or not, pretty much everyone loves a great melodrama.) But director Babak Najafi (London Is Fallen) doesn’t seem able to focus, and the resulting movie feels shoddily made, with poorly lit scenes, confounding editing that throws us out of the action, and belabored pacing during dramatic scenes, of which there are many. Henson and Winston’s scenes together feel good because they’re both terrific, natural performers. Everyone else seems to be sleepwalking through a middling episode of a forgettable TV drama — and for some reason, the sound mixing makes it feel as if all of Glover’s dialogue has been dubbed in, and not well.

But Proud Mary is still worth watching for two reasons. One: Winston is a talented actor, one worth keeping your eye on, and the chemistry between him and Henson as a mother figure is genuinely affecting.

Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary
Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary.
Screen Gems

And two: Henson is just the greatest. The crowd I watched with stayed quiet for a lot of the film, but her scenes inspired cheers, and that’s just what you want in a film like this. The movie simply doesn’t give her enough action sequences, and despite the fact that many of them are clumsily blocked, she’s terrific in them; you may find yourself convinced that a feature film that only featured Henson swirling and kicking and shooting, nothing else, might allow her to break out as an action star.

The lack of marketing for Proud Mary is more evidence that Hollywood just doesn’t believe wide audiences will watch movies about black people

Proud Mary isn’t a masterpiece, and you might not even be able to call it a good film. But as I sat and watched, I wondered why the studio hadn’t screened it for critics. After all, we sit through a lot of bad movies — and a lot of bad action movies — every year.

I had to wade through The Hitman’s Bodyguard last summer and found it to be uselessly and inexplicably dull, not to mention more forgettable than Proud Mary. In December, I sat through Bright, a complete waste of time that probably needed critics’ reviews about as much as it needed a hole in the head, since the movie was already on Netflix and people didn’t have to go to the theater and purchase a ticket to see it. And frankly, it boggles the mind that we live in a world in which Proud Mary wasn’t screened for critics, but The Snowman — truly one of the worst-made films I’ve ever seen or expect to see — was.

No studio has to show a film to critics before releasing it, of course. But choosing not to do so usually signals that it’s expecting bad reviews, which creates a narrative around the film in question before anyone has even seen it. And for better or worse, people’s ticket-buying choices are often driven by Rotten Tomatoes, so preventing critics’ reviews from appearing on the site and its subsidiaries like Fandango until after the film’s release seems like a clear attempt to hide the film, or at least reflects a lack of faith in its ability to perform in the marketplace. Why would a studio do such a thing?

Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary
Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary.
Screen Gems

The answer seems pretty obvious. I don’t think Henson is wrong in her presumption that studios aren’t interested in marketing movies about black people overseas, and that logic spills over into their domestic release too. Proud Mary is a movie starring a black woman, with an almost entirely black cast. The fact that Henson is a bona fide superstar, with one of TV’s most-watched shows (Empire) and one of 2016’s most-loved films (Hidden Figures) to her name, doesn’t seem to have convinced studio execs that she can open a film to more than a “niche audience,” which is how they seem to view a black audience. So they simply didn’t put any marketing weight behind it.

This is an ongoing frustration for many observers of Hollywood: Movies like Hidden Figures and last summer’s Girls Trip — both of which made far more money than predicted — have been labeled “outliers” and “surprises” because they broke into the “mainstream” (read: they appealed to white audiences) even though they starred nonwhite actors (and especially black women) who aren’t Will Smith or Denzel Washington. But evidence continues to mount that conventional Hollywood “wisdom” about box office and audiences needs a serious refresh. The world is so often bigger than Hollywood thinks it is. And Proud Mary may turn out to be yet another piece of evidence to throw onto that pile.

Proud Mary opened in theaters on January 12.

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