'Being Mary Jane's' Gabrielle Union Grills Her Bosses About Writing for a Black Audience: "We Actually Do Black on Purpose"

"It's a popular thing now in TV to say, 'This character happens to be black,' " says Salim Akil

This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

What inspired you to create the character of Mary Jane?

Mara Brook Akil: When I was working on [the sitcom] Girlfriends, I felt like I needed another place to express what it really felt like to be a modern woman. Then — this makes me sound like a crazy person — the character of Mary Jane would visit me. The first image I had was her walking around in a beautiful house and Post-Its were all over the place. I never thought that the show would get made, so I kept little notes for myself, then started to write honestly and with abandon. When we got our BET deal, they asked, "What's your passion project?" Salim [Akil] said, "Baby, tell 'em your idea." I'd kept it to myself because I didn't want anybody to f— it up. But they said yes, and here we are.

How much of the show is based on real people and events?

Salim Akil: Mara had this character walking around in her head, but it's really her in a lot of ways. The perfection. The Post-It notes. We try to pull from real life because when you manufacture things, they come off as false. I would say most of the characters are [based on] real people. They just don't know who they are.

Mara: It's about combing through a lot of life. We're all trying to find the right connection, the right mate. We are stuck. The show is a conversation about why we aren't connecting. That's how the character of David came about.

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Salim: David also came about because of your ex.

Mara: (Laughs.) Yes. He'll love hearing that! [Storylines] like Mary Jane taking care of her mother and drugs being in everybody's family some way are very relatable.

How difficult was it to translate a TV movie into a series?

Mara: I worried that we'd had all of these beautiful [Atlanta] locations in the movie but had to re-create a house on a set. But when you see it on camera and the way Salim moved the camera. … I'm constantly amazed.

Salim: Often African-Americans' work is accepted as if we did something artistic by happenstance. It's almost like, "They make TV shows the same way they dance. It's just natural!"

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"First  Sanford and Son, then Amen and now this!" (Laughs.) Do you intentionally write Mary Jane for a black audience?

Mara: I believe in approaching writing through the specific; the details of a particular culture. So, yes, black people are going to recognize themselves first, and they're going to be the first ones to validate it. "Yep, you got that right." There's an authenticity. That said, most artists want to say [with their work] how we are all more connected than we are different. A lot of people tell us, "I'm Mary Jane, too."

Salim: It's a popular thing now in TV to say, "This character happens to be black." But one thing I've always admired about our approach is that we actually do black on purpose. We're not shy about saying that.