While television networks are continuing to mass produce an influx of reality programming, Mara Brock Akil maintains her knack for creating complex characters and groundbreaking business models.
Her latest small screen project, Being Mary Jane, is about an assertive broadcast journalist (Gabrielle Union) who searches for fulfillment in her love and family lives. BET’s original feature prequel premieres on Jul. 2 at 10:30 p.m. The eight episode series is slated to debut in Jan. 2014.
Akil is celebrated for creating Girlfriends, the provocative sitcom (2000-2008) chronicling the personal lives of four ambitious black women including their careers, romantic relationships and friendship. The hit series lasted 172 episodes. Akil’s follow-up, The Game, is now it its sixth season on BET (the show was originally launched on the CW). The Game explores the culture of professional sports, through the women who are in various relationships (familial, romantic, platonic) with professional football players.
An avid NPR listener, Akil considers developing shows to be semi-autobiographical and from an informed perspective. “I’m a sociologist. I observe, listen and see what’s in front of me. The human condition is simple, but we make it very complicated. I don’t want to do the conventional because it’s not true all the time,” says Akil.
Being Mary Jane originated from Akil making notes between Girlfriends’ third and fourth seasons. “There was more I wanted to say about how we as women really operate in the world. I didn’t have a place for that, but I wanted to express it in a way I think is true,” says Akil.
The Northwestern University alumnae started out behind the scenes on South Central becoming a writer and producer on Moesha and The Jamie Foxx Show. Post Girlfriends, Akil became a consulting producer on Cougar Town.
Despite Akil’s almost two decade track record, she still has to deal with the sexual politics that come along with trying to validate African American programming and images, especially women, for network executives.
“You’ve got to do a song and dance to get these shows made and sold. Lots of times, I’m a black woman selling a black show. There’s so much compromise. What’s a great idea that walks in for whatever reason gets watered down. You’re so far away from the vision, you don’t even know what to do or which way to go,” says Akil.
Along with her husband, director Salim Akil, the power couple co-owns Akil Productions. The pair remade the 1976 musical drama, Sparkle, featuring an all-star cast including Carmen Ejogo, Mike Epps, Jordin Sparks, Derek Luke, Omari Hardwick and the late singer/actress Whitney Houston.
“I write the hell out of the script, hire very well and get out of the way. [Salim] knows what all of those beautiful actors want. He’s able to help them get there. I have his back. He has their back. That’s how our magic works,” says the NAACP Image Award winner.
Union was the Akils’ ideal lead. “[Gabrielle] is accessible. She shows up on time. She knows her lines. She doesn’t complain. If she has an issue, she speaks with you directly in an effort to solve it,” says Akil.
Being Mary Jane is Akil’s zenith. “[BET] trusted me. They gave me the space. They believed in the project as we talked about it. I want this to work. They want this to work,” says Akil.
The series breaks BET’s barriers. The network is often criticized for airing negative images and mediocre programs. Akil thinks viewers should look beyond the stigmas.
“At what point do we allow change? Those numbers matter. We have to Tweet about it endlessly [please]. We have to be there and create a conversation. That’s what’s gonna make this a hit show. We’re not gonna be able to do anything without the partnership of the audience,” says Akil.
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.