The tagline to Jack Hill’s Coffy (1973) reads, “…the baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town.” Pam Grier stormed into that movie with a shotgun on her hip and a body fueled on rage. Blaxpoitation cinema was anti-authoritarian, angry, and reflected the anguish of the unheard. Some deemed it dangerous while others called it righteous. As violent and ugly as it could be, it was also incredibly empowering. Here, in these crime stories, African American audiences saw men and women, who looked like themselves, fight back against a society that would have them silenced to their own corners. The soundtracks were groovy and the style was absolutely wild. Pam Grier was the queen of it all, and she held dominance over the men that dared to stand in her way. It was an era that burned bright but fast. Its influence continues, but not in Proud Mary.
Here is a good reminder of that social-political decade of cool, but whereas Proud Mary’s marketing may reminisce with Coffy or Foxy Brown, the film itself doesn’t really contribute to the conversation. The trailers (what few there are), the posters, and the advertisements on the Brown Sugar App certainly had that flavor, but director Babak Najafi delivers a rather traditional hitman tale. “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” Tina Turner, and a few other Motown covers can only trade on your nostalgia to a certain point.
Taraji P. Henson returns to Boston but trades David E. Kelley’s law firm for a dresser full of artillery. She’s an assassin pulling the trigger for Danny Glover’s mini-kingpin; a killer who grows a conscience after she orphans a child during the film’s opening credits. Proud Mary spends its runtime proving to its audience that this cold-blooded executioner is actually the “mothering type.” Wracked with guilt for leaving Jahi Di’Allo Winston’s Danny Boy behind, Mary frees him from his drug-running captors and takes the child under her wing. For a hot minute, I thought Proud Mary was going to go the Leon: The Professional route, but she is too weepy and ashamed for that to occur.
Why does Henson spend so much time in the film crying, or contemplating crying? She’s a hard ass, a demon with a pistol, and an absolute beast behind the wheel. The best scenes in the film are when she’s stalking prey, or finally, let loose upon the monstrous men in her life. I want the character on the poster. I want the woman in control of her situation, driving the narrative rather than recovering from its manipulations. Just when she gets going, some dude or kid shouts her into noncompliance. The film aggravates eye-rolls when it should be pumping our fists.
Through Mary’s good deeds, steered by doubt and regret, Henson slinks into the background of her story. In saving the child from his abusers, Mary ignites a gang war amongst Rade Serbezja’s Luka and Glover’s Benny. Mobsters start trading bullets, and Mary should attempt to Yojimbo those fools. Instead, she’s debating morality with Billy Brown’s Tom while defending herself from his sexual advances. Proud Mary’s filler is more distracting than atrocious, but that building frustration extends from a certainty that this film could genuinely deliver on the Pam Grier factor. Somewhere in this script, a hero for the people could be found.
When the film allows her to be, Taraji P. Henson is the “baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town.” Proud Mary never reaches the level of headshot choreography seen in John Wick or Atomic Blonde, but when Tina Turner eventually screams into our ears, Henson taps all the domes and kneecaps. She is stunning, selling her armaments as simple extensions of her body. She is totally savage when she needs to be, and like the very best cinematic warriors, she mows down the competition with the smile of confidence. All baddies were outgunned before the needle dropped, and there is satisfaction to their complete lack of lifespan.
Maybe it was unfair to hold Coffy over Proud Mary’s head. Few films could ever survive such a comparison. But Sony Pictures did it to themselves. Her tagline, “Killing for the man every night and day” may bother grumpy old John Fogerty, but it sent a sizzle through my being. 2017 was such a garbage fire of a year, and 2018 looks like it has a few more nastier tricks up its sleeve. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The uncompromising rage of Blaxploitation has a place in our current global hellscape. I need Pam Grier to kick down the door and blast a shotgun in the right faces. We’re ready for that heat. We need it. But we’re going to have to look elsewhere.