PROUD MARY and the Importance of Representation

On January 12, 2018, Sony Pictures released Proud Mary, an 89 minute long action movie about a hit woman haunted by her past who decides to seek redemption.  The movie had an unenviable 35% on Metacritic, 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, and got a 5/10 on IMDB.  With a production budget of $14 Million and a gross of under $21 Million, it didn’t turn a profit, certainly not enough of one to launch a franchise.  The movie launched with basically no fanfare or marketing and whether it flopped because it wasn’t marketed or it wasn’t marketed because it was going to flop is an academic argument at this point.

It’s a shame it didn’t succeed because if it had, another studio might have tried to make its own version of Proud Mary, an action movie with a black woman at the helm.  And that would be a good thing, because representation matters.

It’s a shame, on another level, because it should have done well.  It was a well-conceived action movie with an excellent cast, high-adrenaline fight sequences, and a kid who was actually lovable.

I bought a ticket to Proud Mary because it was an action movie starring a black woman, and because I believe in equal representation, all you have to do to get my ten bucks is put a woman, or a person of color, or both at the helm of your action movie, and you get my ten bucks.  I don’t always watch the movies I give that ten dollars to, but I give my ten bucks.  I give money even to movies I expect to be bad, because until there are as many bad action movies starring persons of color and women as there are starring white men we won’t have as many good ones, and I want to live in a world where there are as many good ones, because representation matters.

But Proud Mary got my hour-and-a-half.  It kept the time on its merits.  It was good.  But there was a tragedy to how good it was.  It was a good movie wearing the wrappings of a genre literally forty years old.  It was a love letter to blacksploitation films of the 1970’s, such as Cleopatra Jones and Coffy, complete with an opening sequence with the main character dressing like a high-class call girl to the dulcet tones of “Papa was a Rolling Stone.”  I did get in a debate with a friend as to whether or not the film needed a Pam Grier cameo.  I felt it did.  She felt it didn’t.

She also pointed out, totally validly, that in the intervening decades, how many action movies have we had starring black women that were anything else?  The only one I can think of is Jumping Jack Flash, which was more of an action comedy than a strictly action film.  My friend was disappointed that the only way a black woman could do “indestructible white man shit” (which may be the best way I’ve ever heard someone describe the kind of stuff action movie stars do on screen) was to harken back to a genre that hasn’t been around for forty years.

It’s easy to talk about how, as a society we’ve come so far, but we haven’t really come very far at all.  Taking a bullet to the shoulder and continuing to kill your way through a swarm of nobodies is still a game for white men.  Sure, these days, Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel are occasionally the guys who do that, and Common was the only villain to give John Wick a fight that seemed worth his screen time in the sequel, but why is it that action is still a genre inhabited almost solely by white men?

Studios are risk averse and white men are a large portion of the action movie watching demographic, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it.  Action movies starring white people flop all the time, and all manner of films about black people can turn out to be successful even among white audiences. If you don’t believe me, check out Barbershop or Black Panther and you’ll see a lot of white people in the audience.

The problem is that no one knows what will be successful, and Hollywood is faddish and constantly trying to catch lightning in a bottle.  When a film does well, people try to make the new that film rather than trying to make a great film from scratch.  Deadpool lead to Logan because Deadpool showed that an R-rated comic book movie could make money.

So my honest hope is that Black Panther may lead to Captain Marvel, and when I say Captain Marvel, I don’t mean Carol Danvers, whose movie is already in production. In my day, Rogue had stolen Carol Danvers’ powers and Carol Danvers was no longer an Avenger.  I mean Monica Rambeau, who is currently called Spectrum, and has previously gone by Photon and Pulsar, but in my heart she will always be Captain Marvel.1 I’d really like Black Panther to Lead to Static Shock, but Static Shock would end up sucking because it’s a DC property.2 I’m hoping studios will realize that comic book movies about persons of color can make money, because representation matters.

I know there are people out there who are going to call me a “snowflake” or an “SJW” and dismiss this position, but I’d like to note that Greta Gerwig just became the fifth woman ever nominated for Best Director.  There have been Academy Awards for 87 years.  If there are five nominees per year, there have been 435 nominees for best director.  Five have been women.  Given that women are 51% of the population of the US, that means that either the contributions of women who direct have been overlooked, that the opportunity to direct has been denied to women, or both.  The numbers are similar for racial minority groups.

I’m no hopeless dreamer who thinks that my ten dollars is going to change the face of the movie market in the US.  But I tell people about my buying tickets to movies I don’t watch, and I’ve convinced some people to do just that.  And I hope that I’m going to give Black Panther my ten dollars, and, frankly, my two hours as well on its own merits.

But also on principle, because representation matters.

  1. Never question the depths of my nerdity.
  2. This list is by no means comprehensive.  I’ve always thought Deathlok the Cyborg was criminally underused.  When I read X-titles in middle and high school, I was partial to Bishop, and I’d really dig seeing a Miles Morales Spiderman Movie, but from what I understand, there are issues with rights involving Sony that likely prevent that from ever happening.