“Being Mary Jane” is a Victory for BET Programming

Salim Akil, Margaret Avery (yellow and white), Mara Brock Akil, BET President Debra Lee and actor Richard Roundtree at a screening of "Being Mary Jane." Photo: Dennis J. Freeman
Salim Akil, Margaret Avery (yellow and white), Mara Brock Akil, BET Networks Chairman and CEO Debra Lee and actor Richard Roundtree at a screening of “Being Mary Jane” at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. Photo: Dennis J. Freeman

For much of its existence, Black Entertainment Television (BET) has been hammered and severely critiqued for its video-laden and music programming. Oftentimes, critics would blast the Viacom-owned network for its lack of vision of  original material that depict African Americans in a positive light, or at the very least, show another slice of life that don’t always incorporate hip hop and rap music and degrading slapstick comedy.

Just within the last year, it seems as if all of that has changed. BET’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood” series, starring comedian Kevin Hart, crooner Robin Thicke, Boris Kodjoe and media mogul Nick Cannon,  has been nothing short of an absolute smash with audiences in its first season.

In tune to keeping that momentum going with television audiences, BET looks as if they have pulled off another coup with the film, but soon-to-be-dramatic series,” Being Mary Jane,” starring actress Gabrielle Union. No pun intended, but this union of great writing and superb acting to go along with a stellar cast, gives BET the right kind of formula for success expected from the drama production.

Mara Brock Akil, the show’s creator, does a masterful job of blending in the right notes of reality that grips a beautiful young woman (Union), struggling to keep her sanity together. Despite balancing an up-and-down love life, dealing with a stricken, depressed mother (Margaret Avery), being the financial caretaker of family members and trying to stay on top of her game as a television news anchor, Mary Jane is the Superwoman that R&B songbird Karyn White used to sing about.

And that’s a lot to chew on for anybody. Somehow, some way, Union’s character, Mary Jane Paul, successfully manages to do it. But that doesn’t mean that Mary Jane’s ability to juggle all of these roles doesn’t come with a price. “Being Mary Jane,” which makes its BET debut July 2, serves as a gritty, but realistic example of family life-good and bad.

"Being Mary Jane" cast members Aaron Spears (left to right), Latarsha Rose and  Robinne Lee. Photo: Dennis J. Freeman
“Being Mary Jane” cast members Aaron Spears (left to right), Latarsha Rose, Robinne Lee and Brely Evans attend the “Being Mary Jane” screening at the Paley Media Center in Beverly Hills. Photo: Dennis J. Freeman

Sure, all of the main characters are black, the but the script is so well-written and thoroughly developed that the scenario played out in front of your eyes is such that this formula could be applied to any ethnic group. One then could very well make the conclusion that this is life, that “Being Mary Jane” is identifiable with the rest of us.

Mary Jane is one of us. We are Mary Jane. Fans, once they see the movie, won’t get enough of it. They don’t have to worry about that. It’s already being taken care of. An original BET film, “Being Mary Jane,” is expected to turn into a series that will air on BET in January next year.  For right now, though, there are enough plots and subplots in the film that will leave you full.

When it comes to her love life, Mary Jane is desperate, searching for that one-of-a-kind emotion in all of the wrong places. The film starts off with Mary Jane getting physical with a lover before discovering she’s been sleeping around with a married man. She goes on and plays with sex toys. She ends up back in the arms or bed with a discarded ex-boyfriend.

So much for love.

While she bounces around not knowing what she’s going to do about her love life, dealing with family brings a lot more baggage and carries a lot more financial weight for this diva. The onus to pick up the slack for certain family members, including her brother Patrick Patterson (Richard Brooks) , leaves Mary Jane exasperated to the point that she eventually vents her frustration of having to always be the money bailout plan.

Being in a pressure-cooker of a job as a TV news anchor doesn’t make life easier for Mary Jane, as she tries to come up with the right stories to please her bosses and keep herself relevant on the air. With all of this turmoil swirling around in her life, Mary Jane still is able to draw back and reflect on the reality side when she spends quiet moments with her father, Paul Patterson Sr. (played with the steady hand of Richard Roundtree).

In a nutshell, “Being Mary Jane,” though imperfect at times, could be the right vehicle to steer BET in the direction of creating more fascinating and realistic storytelling productions.

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