As the writer and producer of over 300 episodes of television and the creator of such shows as Girlfriends, The Game and Being Mary Jane, Mara Brock Akil is really making her voice heard and her vision seen on the OWN romantic drama series Love Is__. Set primarily in 1990s Los Angeles, the story follow Nuri (Michele Weaver) and Yasir (Will Catlett), who are inspired by Mara Brock Akil and husband/executive producer Salim Akil’s own love story, as they chase their dreams and learn to follow their hearts. Told from the perspective of the couple’s present-day selves, viewers will get to see how this power couple became who they now are, 20 years later.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, creator/writer/executive producer/director Mara Brock Akil candidly and very honestly spoke about her journey to becoming a multi-hyphenated career woman in a very male-dominated industry, the mentors who nurtured her and helped her to believe in herself, finding value in her work when other people didn’t, never losing her own voice, getting passed the fear she had to finally step into the role of director, getting to cast and tell what is essentially her own love story, helping her husband, Salim Akil, realize his own storytelling vision for his CW series Black Lightning, and how they compliment each other, both personally and professionally.
Collider: In an industry that’s still very male-dominated, what’s it like to be a multi-hyphenate and to be able to call yourself a creator, writer, executive producer and director?
MARA BROCK AKIL: I love that! It’s really a dream realized. It’s funny you would say that. When you come off the boat into Hollywood, people tell you what you can’t be. You start off from that very euphoric place and the utopian idea of what you can be because you’ve probably made a lot of sacrifices, just to get on that boat and off of it. And then, for people to tell you what you can’t do, and to have all those titles now, I just really thank God, all the time. How did I do it? I think I listened to my inner voice to just keep going, in spite of it all. From a practical perspective, I’ve had to develop shows and get them on the air when, in some way, the value was dismissive. My projects were used as a way to create what is inexpensive content, to help build the network. It didn’t have the value that I and my audience saw, but the core audience is black women, and we’ve been having a conversation, since I had an opportunity to be in this business.
I probably should pause here, for a second, to say that I actually was mentored by a man. I was nurtured by Ralph Farquhar, and then later, by Sara Finney-Johnson and Vida Spears, two black women. So, I actually was nurtured by my culture, in a safe environment that allowed me to build my confidence. And Debbie Allen was one of my mentors, along with Stan Lathan. I was around that tribe of great veterans that started something. They had value of their projects, that were also used to just launch networks and then got canceled. South Central got canceled, after Fox got sports, but at the time, we valued it. We valued the conversation and the nine episodes we got to put on air. That’s a part of my DNA. One of the things that my mentor Ralph always said was, “Mara, you pay it forward.” Whether or not the marketplace, or the network and studios that we were at, really valued it as much as they valued the other content, we did, and because we did, we got the opportunity to be successful enough to stay on the air.
For me, personally, I got to develop myself, as an artist, and continue a conversation with black women and black audiences, so authentically. It’s funny that black men, at first ,were worried about a show called Girlfriends because they thought that black men were gonna get bashed. They realized, “Wait a minute, we’re respected in this story.” We’re building a base that has stayed with us, throughout all of the different projects, that has actually given me staying power to get those titles that I saw in myself, when I got off the boat in 1993.
I would imagine that finding and being able to maintain your own voice is really a huge portion of the battle, since everybody wants to give their opinion, which can make it easy to lose your own voice in all of that.
AKIL: I am very proud of my ability to master that art, in the very crucial stages of developing and launching a show. You have to be able to communicate and move the ball forward with vision. Also, because there was a lack of value, sometimes people don’t give you as much attention for what they don’t believe in. You’re not getting attention ‘cause they really don’t value your show that much, and if you look at it that way, on its face value, that’s hurtful. It’s painful that you don’t get the marketing campaign and that you have to keep going back to the actors and saying, “We only have so much.” You can look at it like that, or you can walk around the room and look at it from a different angle and see the blessing in it. The blessing that I saw in it was that it was an opportunity for us to create and to do the best with what we had, and that grew. That was seeded, it grew, it rooted, and now it’s a tree that is strong and that allows me to hang the different hyphenates and the content that I’ve been able to build and grow. I’m really thankful for my mother, my grandmother and my aunt, for having taught me that skill set because I think a lot of people get stuck in that. Even with the show Love Is__ and my love relationship, what I’m trying to say is that you can look at somebody one way and see the lack of value or the painful part or the part that is a “fail,” or you can walk around the room and see it as a blessing. You just have to see it from a different angle, and you can see the blessing in it. That’s a through-line in my career, and that’s a through-line in my love story with my husband.
Directing was the last hyphenate that you put in your hyphenate basket. Why were you so afraid to try directing, and how did you finally get over and past that fear?