When BET’s original movie Being Mary Jane premiered last summer, it drew 4 million viewers, making it the highest-rated cable show for the evening. When the show officially premiered last Tuesday, it was cable’s top show for the night again, attracting 3.32 million viewers.
The show’s creator, Mara Brock Akil, is excited about what she calls her passion project. The show centers on successful news anchor Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) as she tries to find balance in both her personal and professional life.
Akil was named to The Root 100 for her ability to give voice to the challenges and struggles of professional black women, and her two previous successful shows, The Game—which, like Being Mary Jane, airs on BET—and Girlfriends, offer a unique and fresh exploration of the African-American experience for an audience often ignored by major networks. She is among a growing number of black women in Hollywood making moves and telling their own stories. These women—including Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes, writers Issa Rae and Tina Gordon Chism and film director Ava DuVernay—are bringing new and different perspectives to an industry not known for diversity.
Akil, who talked to The Root before the show’s premiere last week, discussed her new project and her goal of increasing the number of diverse voices in Hollywood.
The Root: Who is Mary Jane, and why did you want to bring this character to television?
Mara Brock Akil: The character had been haunting me in a beautiful way. She had just been living within me. I wasn’t deliberately looking to tell this character’s story. It was literally I’d have these sort of daydreams, these moments, and this character would just keep popping up in my head so loudly. She had this beautiful house, Post-its around it, the affirmations that pop up on Twitter every few seconds today. So I just kept writing it down and just sort of fell in love with telling, painting a picture of humanity and truth. I think Mary Jane is all of us. I chose a generic name, so to speak, in terms of just, Who are we? I think it’s time for us to redefine who we are and not keep chasing what we have been told.
TR: The movie got huge ratings. Why do you think it was so successful?
MBA: According to the audience, they were in need of something that was more reflective of their true humanity. And from the first promos, they could see that we were delivering that. Also, the synergy of premiering the night after the BET Awards, with the return of The Game as a lead-in, great buzz from a six-city tour and the fact that Gabrielle Union stars as Mary Jane.
TR: Last year, there was a slew of black movies—Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Best Man Holiday, Black Nativity, 12 Years a Slave. What does this mean for black creatives in Hollywood?
MBA: This is not new. There have been times when we’ve sort of ebbed and flowed in the business. It’s been barren, and it’s been a little bit more fruitful, and we are certainly in a fruitful stage. I just hope that … we keep the understanding that the longer we stay in this game, the more experience we have. Also with the advent of social media, we’re able to hold on to an audience. That equals dollars. That keeps us participating in the game of Hollywood. So I think we are at a better place to be more consistent in sustaining and hopefully not go through longer droughts, because at the end of the day whether someone likes our content or not, they like the dollars.
TR: What other projects are you working on?
MBA: I’m excited about the ushering in of new voices. It’s not enough that me and [husband] Salim get to do our thing, the thing we get to feel very excited about. It is very important to me to get other shows on the air, to help other young writers or new voices have their own shows or to be showrunners. [It’s] about community—helping each other, supporting each other, validating each other, but then also pulling each other up to usher them into more work, more projects, more voices.
Being Mary Jane airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on BET.
Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and senior editor of The Crisis magazine. Follow her on Twitter.
Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.