Writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk is no stranger to Hollywood. After all, this is the man who brought, and is bringing, Black and queer experiences to screens large and small. From 2000’s not-talked-about-enough indie comedy Punks and 2012’s The Skinny to the iconic show Noah’s Arc, which is experiencing a resurgence of sorts since Logo uploaded it to YouTube last month, he has been showing us ourselves well before it was in vogue to center people of diverse backgrounds.
With periodic projects in the 20 years since his debut film, Polk is still at it, now as the co-executive producer and showrunner of BET’s hit show Being Mary Jane. The drama, which wraps with a two-hour series finale movie written by Polk that airs Tuesday, stars Gabrielle Union, Morris Chestnut, Michael Ealy, and the legendary Margaret Avery of The Color Purple fame.
Ahead of the premiere, Out spoke with Polk from Atlanta about the film, how Hollywood has changed since he first begun, and the next television show he’s currently working on. He also spilled the tea on all things Noah’s Arc.
I feel like Being Mary Jane having all of these early 2000s Black Hollywood legends together in one show is one of the reasons so many people loved it. You joined the writer’s room for the show’s fourth and final season, and now for the series finale. How was the experience?
It's been really great because Gabrielle and I have known each other for a couple of decades, when we were both coming up in the industry, and so it's nice to come full circle sometimes when you both claw your way to the top. She's a professional, a class act — I don't know how to describe it. It wasn’t a “come up” for me, but it felt like an I-have-arrived moment.
When it was canceled, before the network announced it would have a series finale in the form of a movie, I feel like a lot of Black women in particular were upset. What do you think was the thing that made fans of the show love it?
Being Mary Jane really ushered in a bit of a sea change. It was BET's first drama series and Black women up to that point had not really seen themselves portrayed in that light. Certainly, Black women have been the subject and the center of comedies throughout the decades on television, but we all know until Scandal there was no network television drama with a Black female lead. They both really filled a void for Black viewers and it told those stories in an interesting way. Mary Jane was complex. What [creator] Mara Brock Akil did was just as groundbreaking as Girlfriends was.
Now you all are wrapping up the show with this two-hour movie. Tease it for us.
Well, there's always been this lingering question during the series of will Mary Jane find happiness? Even though we've seen this career woman going through ups and downs in her career as a TV journalist, the big question has always been, will she find love? Will she have a baby? Will she commit? Will she get married? Finally, we get to answer all of those questions.
You have a little bit of experience with a show being cancelled and having storylines wrapped up in a movie form, considering that’s exactly what happened with Noah’s Arc. Did it translate well to this project?
My challenge with Noah's Arc was, how do I wrap this up in a way that satisfies the legion of loyal fans and honors what we created in the series, but at the same time, make a project that can stand alone as a movie? It was important to satisfy both ends, and that was a challenge here as well. But I had worked on season four where we had taken the show in a new direction. Having been so materially involved in those 20 episodes, I was prepared to dive in and figure out, what is Mary Jane's last act?
If people have never watched an episode of Being Mary Jane, can they just watch the series finale and still understand what’s going on? Or do we need them to binge the series?
Binging helps, but I tried to write the movie in a way that you don't have to have seen it to enjoy. We tell a complete story from beginning to end, but I would say because the series is there — it's on Netflix and on BET.com — do yourself a favor and go check out those 20 episodes, or even if you can't check out all 20, check out 10 of them.
I brought up Noah's Arc earlier, and it's having a little bit of a resurgence now that everyone can stream it on YouTube. How does it feel to have people falling back in love with Noah and the gang?
It's amazing to me that a show like Noah's Arc, all these years later, can continue to find an audience, and I think it's really smart of Logo and MTV and Viacom to put it out there on a platform like YouTube because we are moving more and more, further and further into this realm where the way people consume media is just continuing to change and evolve. And the younger you are, the less likely you are to watch traditional television. Lots of people don't even have TVs or cable these days, so I think it's great that a show like Noah's Arc, which has fallen off the radar because it had not been airing in repeats a lot, is now there.
What I'm finding is a lot of younger LGBTQI folks, especially of color, who just weren't around when the show was airing originally are now discovering it...I just think it's wonderful that it's out there and can live because we, of course, have not had a show like it on the air since. We do have the beloved Pose, but Pose is a very different thing, and of course we need to tell our stories in all kinds of ways.
There really is a whole generation of particularly Black LGBTQ+ folks who don't know that this wonderful thing existed.
Because the time that Noah's Arc came out, we hadn't made all the advancements we have made even though it was only what, not even 15 years ago. I've heard lots of stories about people saying, “I used to literally sneak and hide in the closet and watch the show because I didn't want my family to see me watching this gay show and figure out my sexuality.”
That was me!
Exactly. In addition to that, you had tons of people who probably were so deep in the closet or deep in denial that they wouldn't even entertain watching a show like that. As we know, some people then tend to come out in their 20s, in their 30s, sometimes even in their 40s and because of that, you also have people who didn't experience it.
Is the series being on YouTube part of this great ploy by Logo or Viacom or whoever to give us a remake?
I get this question all the time, since the movie wrapped. I guess I can reveal and I'll give you the exclusive that yes, there is a remake in the works. It's very early in the process, but conversations are being had.
That's all I needed to hear. Your next project is called P-Valley. What is that about?
P-Valley is an amazing show conceived by the brilliant award-winning playwright Katori Hall. She wrote the play The Mountaintop and the book for the new Tina Turner musical that's coming to Broadway this fall that is amazing. This is based on one of her plays, called Pussy Valley, and it is this gritty, very Black drama series set at a strip club in a dusty, small town in the Mississippi Delta. There is a wonderful and surprising and interesting Black LGBTQ+ presence on the show in the form of one of the lead characters, who is the proprietor of the strip club. I won't give any surprises away about that character. You will see. It focuses on the lives of these four women who work at the club. If you're a fan of Noah's Arc and the work that I've done, then you're going to love this show.
When I interviewed you for the Los Angeles Times three years ago, it was right before everyone was starting to have these diversity and inclusion conversations. As a black gay man in the industry right now, how does it feel? Does it feel like it's changing?
Absolutely. I can tell you having returned to Hollywood and gotten back into television a few years ago, the difference is night and day. Literally all these things that held me back after I did my first film, Punks, and even during the Noah's Arc era, all the things that were a detriment — being Black, being gay, doing work that was Black and gay — are a plus now. There are a lot of doors that are open now that just were not even a decade ago.