Earlier this month, I attended the New York screening of Being Mary Jane, the latest project from accomplished show creator, screenwriter and producer Mara Brock Akil. You may know her name from the credits of the shows she created: Girlfriends, now a cult classic and a history-making show that ran for 8 seasons; and The Game, another history-making series that garnered 7.7 million viewers on its premiere night when it was reborn on BET—the most viewers for a sitcom premiere in cable history. She also wrote the remake of Sparkle, where Mike Epps delivered his breakout dramatic performance, and was sadly the last film role for the late Whitney Houston.
I held on to this piece because I needed time to process everything she shared during the talkback interview she conducted with another Mara, news anchor Mara Schiavocampo. Brock Akil’s remarks were so rich and at times so raw and emotional. Totally understandable given that she has lived with the Mary Jane character since her days of executive producing Girlfriends. To finally have that vision realized and experienced by audiences is clearly moving her deeply. I also waited to pen and post because she was really adamant about leaving those in attendance with the directive to get viewers: “from a production value standpoint, this kind of creativity is expensive. If you want to see more of this [kind of work on TV], you have to show up on premiere night—and not watch on your phone later.” So mark your calendars now to VIEW LIVE—not just DVR the film when it premieres on BET on Tuesday, July 2 at 10:30pm EST, right after the return of her other series, The Game.
Yeah…let that marinate for a sec.
A Black woman show creator/writer/producer has two programs premiering back to back on July 2.
She and Shonda Rimes are the only two African American woman writer/EPs with more than one show on at a time on any network. Brock Akil credited her telecast partner and its Chairman & CEO, Debra Lee on that night. “After we got 7.7 million viewers with The Game, my phone was ringing off the hook with people asking, ‘how’d you do it?’ We did it because BET believed. It goes back to marketing dollars; after 8 years of Girlfriends and 3 years of The Game on the CW, those shows got no marketing campaigns,” she recalled. “I was offering to run off my own fliers to pass out at clubs.”
It was also at BET that she got what she calls her “dream meeting”: the meeting that she noted “all the white boys get where the executives ask you what your passion project is.”
Brock Akil took that meeting with Original Programming President Loretha Jones, and when asked, Brock Akil’s answer was Being Mary Jane. No network is perfect, but what Brock Akil revealed with this information was how important it is for networks by and about people of color to exist—and thrive. In a Hollywood where she’d had two proven sitcom hits and even sold a screenplay, it was only a network that reflected her identity and understood her vision that presented her with the opportunity routinely afforded her white male counterparts. In this meeting, there was no “Negro 101” to wade through to determine whether the concept was viable or sellable with this network. They got it. And all any creative wants is to be gotten, so the audiences they serve can be seen, heard, known in all their complexity.
“I want to say that Black women and families are HUMAN with Being Mary Jane,” Brock Akil said. “I just want someone to fight for us; to fight for Black women.” Brock Akil is fighting the good fight. With this film, she packs a mean combination. Mary Jane Paul is both hero and nemesis; at work and in love, she alternates between saving the day and getting in her own way. Mary Jane adores her family, but like all of us, can’t stand some of the choices they make or ways they behave. Dynamic roles like these rarely come to women of color, and are written by them even less often. The result is usually some fragmented hologram of a “sista” with canned, tired dialogue, or a character that we only see in one context/environment because her character is peripheral, or a completely stereotypical caricature emerges.
Thankfully, none of the aforementioned can be found in this film. Gabrielle Union is perfectly cast as the woman who has to be “on” at all times in the world, but in her private moments, nothing clicks the way she wants it to. The dialogue is strong, snarky, and decidedly grown; no over-the-top attempts at hipness here. While honest exchange and deep reflection drive this drama, it definitely has moments that are shocking and funny. Thanks to laser-like scripting and nuanced acting from Lisa Vidal, Omari Hardwick, Stephen Bishop and Robinne Lee, there are several standout scenes. Won’t spoil them here. I will say that the ending is completely unexpected and sets things up well for the 2014 premiere of its spinoff series.
Toward the end of the Q&A, Mara went beyond being personable and got intimate. I was intrigued by her answers for how she manages to having a husband, family, and birthing her creative babies. Many of my readers know that in my book I asserted that work-life balance is a myth—long before women were being asked to lean in or lean out. What we need to strive for is work-life function, so we can be fully present in all of life’s moments, without being guilt-riddled or distracted from the business at hand; without compromising on self-care. Brock Akil affirmed my assertion during her talkback session with some incredible comments. She dropped a few jaws with these gems:
Speaking about her husband, Being Mary Jane director Salim Akil:
“I am very fortunate that I get to do what I love with whom I love. It’s also how we manage to see each other (laughs).”
“I have a lot of sex. Because sometimes, you think you need a massage, when really, all you needed was some…you know.”
“Black women need and deserve to be cherished; that is the role of a man.”
On drawing the line for family time:
“On the weekends, I am a mother.”
Hold it–before you go side-eyeing about how she’s only there for her kids two days a week: I take this to mean that she is a mother all the time, but that her work cannot intrude on that role during weekends. Mara Brock Akil is not ‘bout that Always At Work life. She actually does take time off from work each week. She relayed an anecdote about concerning a neighbor as she had a prolonged business conversation from her cell in her driveway, because she literally didn’t want to bring it to the threshold of her home. These boundaries matter, and if you want to be married to something other than a career, or want to raise a human being, the boundaries must be set, even if they change as you grow.
Here’s the takeaway: on BET next Tuesday, July 2nd at 10:30 EST, you have the opportunity to be highly entertained while you make a dream come alive for brilliant, fabulous and hardworking woman. Her dream is actually to create for a vision of Black women who are more fully realized onscreen, without making one Black woman the model for all of us. By taking that opportunity, you make that dream real in a world that has us all pegged. While it may not be a dream you share, this is absolutely a dream worth putting first.
Follow Mara Brock Akil here.