Being Mary Jane and the Nuances of Blackness

I loooove Being Mary Jane! Mara Brock Akil is known for her shows Girlfriends and The Game but Being Mary Jane is her first attempt at an hour long drama. When the movie came out in 2013, I was so excited for the following TV show which stars the lovely Gabrielle Union as the title character Mary Jane Paul (Her birth name is Pauletta Patterson and her mother is not afraid to remind her of that). Now of course Being Mary Jane is a part of theOlivia Pope generation as it features a strong leading black woman who despite having a good handle on her professional life, her personal life is in shambles. Not only does this narrative humanize black characters who for the majority of television history had to be unrealistically perfect, but unlike Scandal with its wild conspiracies, Empire with the unrelatable decadence magnificence of the Lyons, or HTGAWM with the fact that law students would spend so much time with one class, Being Mary is in the realm of possibility for many black woman who desire to be professionals. Mary Jane is a little different than the average self made black woman as she does come from money since her father Paul Patterson played by Richard Roundtree who is a retired airline executive. Nonetheless, the vulnerability and hypocrisy of Mary Jane (MJ) draws people in. For me the major reason this show is so amazing is how unlike the other black oriented TV shows on now, this show adds a layer of nuance to all the characters instead of just the main one. Yes we understand Olivia is complicated and people love Cookie for her anti-politically correct nature but in this show all of the characters are well developed. Instead of falling into cliches surrounding various forms of black identities seen in the media, Akil has shown how the black experience cannot be viewed as monolithic.

Since this show has a majority black cast the diversity is easier to notice (It is possible that as Empire continues into the second season that more nuance will be added to the characters). For instance you have MJ’s younger brother Paul Jr. played by B.J. Britt. PJ is very responsible finishing his architect degree at college and I think there was even an episode where he did an internship. However, PJ also sells weed. His character could have easily become the “black collegiate drug dealer,” but thankfully he is a prime example of the nuance to the black characters on this show. Considering how the drug dealing image is typically associated with blackness in the US, it is great to see how Akil spun that notion on its head. PJ isn’t a corner deal interested in making enough money to be hood rich nor is he the college drug dealer trying to buy books as well as fancy clothes. He is however a young and inspirational business man. In episode 7 of season 2, he approaches David to get him as an investor to support his initiative to create some sort of marijuana dispensary. This is great considering that as some states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, it has been primarily white men who have led the charge and been the face of this movement (Shout out to Charlo Greene for being a major trendsetter). This has rightfully led many black people to criticize the endeavor since a large percentage of incarcerated black men are there because they possessed a small amount of weed or sold some to make money (Hopefully, in reality we can see some changes with this issue). So PJ’s mission not only serves as Akil attempting to show the black community taking back and owning a tradition that we have long been demonized for, but in the process we get a different type of black man on television who is charismatic but not a preacher or politican and goal oriented but still there for his family.

I have noticed that though this show is centered on MJ and her dysfunctional personal life, Akil has created black men that challenge several stereotypes. In addition to PJ, you have David played by Stephen Bishop who is MJ’s ex but weirdly always available lover. David comes from money but chose to stand on his own two feet and become self made with the launch of his startup. Then you have this season’s other love interest in Sheldon Dewitt portrayed by Gary Dourdan who is a lawyer who instead of being emotional entangled with MJ like David stimulates her psychologically. There is MJ’s other brother Patrick played by Richard Brooks, who had a successful nightclub but fell victim to drugs and now that he is clean, is struggling to make ends meet. He represents the pitfalls that come with success in life but especially for black men. At first I thought he would be just the standard issue recovering addict who would eventually relapse much like Malik Yoba’s character on Empire, but I was mistaken. Besides MJ and his daughter Nicey he is one of the most painful characters to watch. He shows the love of a father who made some bad choices in the past but is trying to rise above them. Unlike a white former addict who came from money, Patrick’s blackness makes his recovery so much more difficult. Where as a white character’s father could possibly still use his clout to get his son the help he needs and possibly a good job, Patrick either doesn’t have or want that luxury. It will be interesting to see how his character continues to develop as the show progresses. Last but not least you have Aaron Spears’s character Mark Bradley who is a gay black news anchor on SNC but that is not his entire identity nor is Akil trying to make it so. I will use him in comparison to Jamal from Empire who is a great artist that happens to be gay but at times you can definitely hear Lee Daniels trying to get his voice heard in a not so subtle way. Being Mary Jane also tackled the issue of “homophobia” in the black community but in a way that is far more nuanced and in my opinion beneficial. At the beginning of the season, Mark’s parents come to visit and MJ plays his girlfriend to his boyfriend’s disdain. However, Mark’s parents proved that parents almost always know the truth even if they go along with your lie. When they confronted him about it what ensued was an awkward yet beautiful demonstration about the complexity of the conversation that needs to be had. Mark was on one side calling out his father for his abusive non understanding language . Typically this is where the conversation stops on TV but in her brilliance Akil goes further by making the father respond with something along the lines of “why do you care what I or anyone else thinks…live your truth.” Now this can be read in a multitude of ways but for me it showed the complicated rift within the black community that not even Empire truly gets at. (It can be argued that Lucious sort of shows love and hate at the same time but it isn’t as nuanced). Regardless of where people stand on the topic, Mark and his father represent a truth that not only speaks to nuance in characters but the importance to respect everyone’s difference of opinion no matter if you are in the right.

BET Studios
BET Studios

I want to end this post by bringing it back to MJ and how successful black people still struggle. So many episodes feature MJ hosting drinks at her lavish house with her girlfriends. Many of these gatherings end up in ruin when MJ gets too drunk and speaks her mind to people such as the married black couple who are really friends of David. I use the scene of the drinks at MJ’s to illustrate something not seen on TV in regards to blackness. All the women (and sometimes men) at her cocktail parties are successful, self made, and challenging dominant narratives about blackness. However, at the pinnacle of success there comes sacrifices. Mary Jane and most of her black female friends specifically want black love which they see as hard to come by due to the lack of black men who can stand on equal footing with them and are confident enough to be in a relationship with them. These women are complicated, powerful, smart, and beautiful yet they still crave something so basic as love. The fact that MJ wants black love further challenges mainstream notions that when you make it you have to improve yourself in all ways. Now the changing of her name from Pauletta to Mary Jane can be seen as a type of whitening to be more appealing to the white masses but at her core MJ does not want to buy into the notion that success means she gets a white husband. This can be seen as a valid critique of Olivia Pope who is only happy when she is with white men as the black men are either too old school//patriarchal or just a random hook up. Yet while we see MJ and her successful black female friends, Akil has given us Nicey who is just as complicated. She was a black single teen mother which in our society is a stereotypical image but Akil blows that stereotype out of the water by showing how despite having two children by two different men who both leave her, she is still human. MJ tries to fix Nicey and take care of her as an aunty/auntie would but Nicey is caught up in her ways. Nicey is one of the few people who checks MJ when MJ become hypocritical without doing a self inventory. Though Nicey at times seems more problematic then helpful, she represents potential untapped. The over arching theme for many of these character is that they are self made and overcame the background institutional racism in America. Though they are successes they are still faced with these issues such as the black lawyer who committed suicide in s. 2 ep. 7 who was bullied at work, such as Patrick being questioned by the cops when he was waiting for his daughter to come out of school, such as Mary Jane being subjected to focus groups tests for her show by the network. Nicey is at the beginning of her rise. Surely as she grows older she will face discrimination by people who look down on her for being a teen mom but I am interested in seeing how she as a character continues to develop. After all like all the other characters in this amazing show, she represents someone’s reality.

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