I fell in love with Mary Jane as she lay in bed with a man after sex and prayed, “Please, God, if he’s mine, give me a sign.” I loved her because she was real. I loved her because she was raw. I loved her because I had prayed that prayer. I loved her because I am Mary Jane.
“You’re telling all of our secrets,” said a viewer to creator Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends, The Game) at the Atlanta premier of Being Mary Jane. Mara laughed. That had been her plan. To create a character that contemporary, middle class Black women could relate to. And with that, she succeeded.
“Successful. Sexy. Searching.” Those were the three words used to describe, Mary Jane Paul, a popular television news anchor who is played by Gabrielle Union. “The character was hunting me,” said Mara of Mary Jane. “She was walking around the house with all these post-it notes.” Mara needed a place to express the character, and BET provided her with that platform.
Mary Jane Paul is different from Joan, Maya, Lynn and Toni, Mara’s first characters whom we fell in love with. “There was more I wanted to say,” said Mara of her Girlfriends characters, “but I had to stick to the formula.” Mary Jane breaks that formula and reveals the honest thoughts of a Black woman attempting to have it all.
“You never know what people are going through. There are a lot of things that I don’t tell my girlfriends,” said Mara of herself and of Mary Jane. It’s those inner secrets that are too painful, too shameful, or just too much to deal with that Gabrielle Union’s character reveals so beautifully. As flawed as Mary Jane is, she’s likable and relatable because she’s genuine. From the quick wash up before #HeyBoo arrives to being manipulated and misled by the guy you’re dating to masturbating before a date to contemplating having a baby to fulfill you (whether it includes freezing sperm a not), these are real things that real women do.
“Black women have to become liars because we are judged. It’s hard to live and be free.” And in general, we are liars, if only because we choose to tell just one side of our stories. We emphasize our highlight reel, but ignore our struggles, our pain, our insecurities, our fears and our failures. We paint these beautiful portraits of success, which are only veneers of the people we truly are. We rob our sisters of life lessons and mentorship because we refuse to tell our stories in their entireties.
Because Mary Jane, as real and relatable as she is, is flawed, Mara chose to begin the 2-hour movie pilot with a disclaimer that said, this is not all Black women’s story. “I chose to do it to disarm people,” said Mara. “We’re still in the beginning stages of accepting our images. We tend to be defensive because of our history.” This is why we lash out when we see Halle Berry rewarded for having sex in Monster’s Ball, Denzel Washington receiving accolades for playing a dirty cop in Training Day, Mo’Nique celebrated for being an abusive mom in Precious or Viola Davis revered for being a passive maid in The Help. Our characters, Black characters, have seemingly always been caricatures of our race…from the minstrel shows of the 19th century to the reality shows of today. So Mara’s challenge was to “capture the humanity of a Black woman without making her a caricature.” Mara does that with her writing, and Gabrielle does that with her acting. They have us cheering for a woman who steals semen, not because we agree with her decisions, but because we understand her humanity.
Mara also expressed much gratitude to BET, saying that the series didn’t get watered down in the creative process, something that often happens when working with network television. “There’s so much compromise with the networks. [BET] trusted me. They gave me the space. BET spent some money. You have to watch.”
I don’t say this often, but thank you BET…for allowing Mary Jane Paul to tell my story. I’m looking forward to tuning in to the series come 2014.