By Nina Terrero
March 31, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Daniel McFadden
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On the surface, Mary Jane Paul seems to have it all: a successful cable news show, lots of friends, a loving family, a healthy shoe budget and yup, even a hot date (here’s looking at you, Sheldon!). Problem is, our favorite primetime news anchor is still subject to blatant racism, as evidenced by a particularly raw scene where Mary Jane is caught in the crossfires of an ugly, abusive outburst. We spoke to guest director Rob Hardy (who helmed Empire’s gripping season finale), to get his take on what went down—and to get a sense of where things are headed.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As a woman of color, I was struck by the scene where Gabrielle Union takes a parking spot and a white man proceeds to call her a derogatory slur—he calls her a black bitch—and then tells her she looks like an “ugly black monkey.” Was that a difficult scene to direct?

ROB HARDY: For starters, I made sure to talk to Gabrielle about that scene and its tone; about what it’s like to be in a world where you are an alpha female and you control things but then how she can step into another world where she’s still viewed negatively. I need her to be real and raw in her emotions so it would feel like real life. And then for that guy in the scene, it was about being entitled, as opposed to being nervous about the words or how anyone would view him. His is a “You should bow down to me” perspective. Those are the emotions we used to get to that moment. One of the things I like about the show is that it deals with things that are really every day occurrences; you know, things that a lot of people experience.

There’s another gripping scene where the head of SNC dismisses Mary Jane’s issues at work by saying, “I just don’t know why people get so sensitive over this stuff. They have the president, NBA, Jay Z and Beyoncé. Carnival Cruise and American Express are run by black people. What is Mary Jane upset about? …Just do the damn job and shut up.” How do you think a scene like this shapes the episode’s narrative about race relations?

I thought that statement was true in that a lot of people in our country feel that way, especially now that we talk a lot about race and race relations and how that relates to all the things we’ve seen go on as far as social unrest. And I want to point back to President Obama and the fact that hey, the person sitting in the White House is African American. Oprah owns her own network and we have influential athletes and musicians. People point to that and say “Hey, there is no racism. There are no real issues and on top of that, you’re making all this money.” A lot of that is exacerbated because you have a lot of black people in positions in power. That’s the undertone that drives that parking lot scene. But I don’t think that’s the case with the boss. I think there, you have a situation where somebody just doesn’t get it because in their mind, black people have the money and they have Obama. He’s like, “What’s the problem?”

Tracy, Mary Jane’s sister-in-law, is now in jail. She’s the only member of the family we’ve seen in prison—and she’s white. Is there more to this story line than we’re seeing on screen?

I think it absolutely is because I think typically what we’ll see is the brother that is doing dirt and is in jail for it. He’s struggling to get out, he’s doing drugs, he’s dealing, whatever it is we’re accustomed to seeing [in the media]. But now you have the one white character in their family who ends up being in jail for something that’s very different from the usual story.

At the end of this episode, Sheldon tells Mary Jane “I figure a brother had to be real black to date you.” What does he mean by that?

I think Mary Jane is polished, refined, and very strong. So for Sheldon, that statement is almost like making a joke. It’s almost like saying, “I know you can’t settle for just any guy.” In dating, Mary Jane, he has to be a super strong black man. He can’t just be the executive, and he can’t just happen to be an entrepreneur. So I think what he’s trying to show is that he can be as diverse and down as he sees Mary Jane being. He can be the same things she is.

Gabrielle Union delivers an incredible scene during this episode where she dives deep into the fact that Mary Jane finds it difficult to sustain meaningful relationships. What’s it like to watch Gabrielle do her thing and deliver a monologue like that?

It was great. I think it came across very heartfelt, because that’s a position that Gabrielle could very well be in as a celebrity. Mary Jane is an amazing personality—she’s very dynamic, very creative, and very well known, but she’s often put in a position where people need things. She’s always on; she’s always Mary Jane. A lot of times, people don’t think someone like that needs to be recharged. It can be isolating. In that scene, Mary Jane was sharing that she wants someone to reach out to say “Are you okay? What do you need? Can we just hang out and be people?” She’s sharing that she’s not always the Mary Jane Paul that we see in front of the camera.

This episode dealt with a myriad of issues: the prison system, sex trafficking, self-medication, racial profiling, and familial obligation. You’ve also directed episodes of Empire, which also handles its fair share of social issues. What do you feel is the biggest difference in the way Empire deals with social issues vs. Being Mary Jane?

They’re two very different shows. Being Mary Jane approaches social issues from the perspective of what’s going on in the news; it reflects the kind of conversations people are having on the block. Empire is told from the perspective of the individual family with certain quirks. It’s about how those issues get in the way of pursuing a familial agenda. They couldn’t be more different.

Being Mary Jane airs at 10 p.m. ET on BET.

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