Let me be upfront: I’m a Gabrielle Union fan. I think she’s been overlooked and underestimated. Put her in any Sandra Bullock movie (OK, maybe not “The Blind Side” although if Gabby pulled that part off, she’d deserve the Oscar a lot more than Sandy did) and she’d shine. She’s got that same mix of girl-next-door pretty, willingness to be goofy, completely relatable charm.
So I was excited to hear that she was getting a series, a starring role at that, which begins with this 2 hour movie “Being Mary Jane” (10:30 tonight, BET). It’s a good role for her, a chance at a complex character who is sometimes sexy, sometimes wrong, sometimes smart and sometimes does dumb things.
Union plays a talk show host on a cable news network a la CNN. The show’s brought her some fame but isn’t quite a ratings winner yet, so she and her producer (Lisa Vidal) still have to fight for the stories they want to feature. In her personal life, Mary Jane is the standout in her family. One brother (Richard Brooks) is unemployed and staying at mom’s house, bringing in thick girl after thick girl. Her mother (Margaret Avery) is dying of, I think, lung cancer, using her gasps of breath to complain. Her father (Richard Roundtree) takes the brunt of her mom’s complaints. That's a great cast.
But the show is framed not by the family issues but by the deep longing Mary Jane has to find love, to have a family. (The show starts with a statistic that 42 percent of black women are not married, then states that this is just one woman’s story.) When we meet her, she’s sleeping with one guy (Omari Hardwick) and still pining for another. Mary Jane just can’t get the relationship stuff right.
OK, this bugs me. I get it: Everybody wants love and as a plot device, there’s lots to explore in that arena. But I’m getting a little tired of seeing women framed not by their success but what they lose by being successful: a man. A baby. At heart, that’s even what “Scandal” is about. There must be another way to explore women’s lives without making the search for a man the centerpiece.
But that doesn’t mean the show isn’t entertaining. It is. Mara Brock Akil, the woman behind “Girlfriends” is behind this and just as she did with that show (and “The Game,” which airs just before this at 10) she mixes humor with pathos, just as life does, dropping in light moments and tough moments at odd, unexpected times. Life isn’t neat and victories aren’t always triumphant in Mary Jane’s world -- nor are they in ours.
The movie ends on an interesting note that could take the series in a different direction. Or not. Either way, I’m intrigued and I’m hopeful that the writing will take Union to some new places. She’s a natural actress but I don’t think she’s been pushed. I want “Being Mary Jane” to do that. I think together Gabrielle and Mary Jane can tell great stories.