How Mara Brock Akil Plans To Save TV
The force behind shows like Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane has made hit programs for black girls for 23 years, but she’s just getting started.
There are certain things people want to hear Mara Brock Akil say. As the force behind some of television’s best and blackest shows—the epochal sitcom Girlfriends, the record-breaking dramedy The Game, the Gabrielle Union drama Being Mary Jane—Brock Akil is often expected to beg for equal footing to her white showrunner counterparts, demand more opportunities for black actors, and denounce the industry that marginalizes her and her vast audience simply because her programs air on BET. Diversity is a hot button topic these days, but Brock Akil is an OG who’s been pushing for it for two decades. Though she doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the flaws of America’s very white television industry, she’s far too busy working to worry about proving her worth.
When we meet for coffee at SoHo’s Mercer Hotel, Brock Akil is buzzing with energy about the new Warner Bros. deal she and her husband, director and longtime collaborator Salim Akil, are due to embark on in May. She’s coy about the shows she’s working on there (at least one of which is anticipated to begin airing next year) but insistent that she intends to continue telling black stories—honest ones with complex, imperfect characters—to anyone who’ll watch.
There’s one question everyone I know is dying to hear the answer to: when is Girlfriends coming to Netflix, and why isn’t it there yet?
MARA BROCK AKIL: Back when I was trying to shop a potential Girlfriends movie, I was like, “Guys, don’t you understand the money you’re missing? Do you not know how black women shop? Like, what are you doing? You have the analytics for it, why don’t you want this money?” Sometimes you can’t help but think, “Is there some conspiracy? You just don’t want black women to feel good about themselves?” I don’t understand. A lot of times, there’s oversight. They don’t think about us. There are blinders on and, whether they’re deliberate or not, it doesn’t make any sense.
But I have sought out, in many incarnations, a way to end the Girlfriends story. I never had a chance to end it, so Joan, Maya, Toni, Lynn, William, Monica, Darnell—they’re all with me. Sometimes it’s sad to think that they’re out at sea because they didn’t get a proper ending. It took quite a few years for me to let go of that in order to create space for newer work.
Now that you’re moving from BET to Warner Bros., you’ll be leaving Being Mary Jane in someone else’s hands. What does that feel like?
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and it’s still so hard to answer. When the decision happened, I was hoping that I could be helpful to the transition. Although they’ve announced that Being Mary Jane is coming back, I haven’t heard anything that’s made it seem real, and I don’t know who’s running it. All this time went by that I could’ve helped figure it out, but now I’m in a position where I don’t know what BET’s gonna do.
“I used to want to make sure that the powers that be could see value in us. That ain’t my problem anymore. If you don’t see us, then you’ve missed out.”—Mara Brock-Akil
Do you think Being Mary Jane can exist without you?
My ego answer? No. [Laughs] But really, I’m neutrally curious. Having gone through what I went through with the other shows—two cancellations, a revival, squeaking out an ending for The Game—it’s funny to sit here in this position again. It’s not to say that BET couldn’t make it work, it’s just that I know what it takes to be a producer and there’s so much that goes into making any show. There’s a lot that goes into this show in particular, so I wonder who they will get to help shepherd and hone some of its intellectual artistry. It really would depend on that person: how do they see and view Mary Jane and black women? If they pick someone that I don’t like, I’m gonna go, “Oh shit. I can’t watch.” [Laughs] I hope there’s another Mara out there who’s like, “Bring it on. Give me the ball.”
There’s this dialogue that’s surrounded you for a while now—and it implicates some of us in the audience as well—that relies on the word “forgotten.” Your work is talked about as “forgotten,” your viewership is “forgotten.” I find it frustrating because there are millions of people watching. Where exactly do you think this “forgetting” happening?
I’ve kinda been an off-Broadway sensation. There aren’t a lot of lights or big marquees around my name or my work, yet my core audience knows exactly where I am. We’ve been having a conversation through the work for years. We’ve been here, we are here, and we’ll always continue to be here. But there is no value in us until they need to exploit us. I used to want to make sure that the powers that be could see value in us. Now I’m over it because that ain’t my problem anymore. If you don’t see us, then you’ve missed out on something beautiful and rich and interesting or even boring—black girls can be boring too. It’s really not my job anymore to make people see our value.
The music supervision on Being Mary Jane is always on-point. Is music an important consideration for you?
Oh my God, yes, I’m all over it. Some episodes are written based on pieces of music. Music is part of our communication, and music is also a portal into my creativity. When I created the series, I played Alanis Morissette’s “Mary Jane”—the acoustic version. Let me tell you, the scenes would just fly, fly, fly, fly out of me. I tried with the regular version and it didn’t work. I knew I was having a conversation through the music.
In addition to your job on the creative side of things, you also have to consider business when you interact with the larger Hollywood machine. How do you navigate those politics?
When I walk into a room I know my storytelling has value and I have to sell my idea. I have to help people see the financial value and gain in my work. In television and film, black people have typically had moments of great success when there’s chaos and things are falling apart: when networks are on the brink of canceling shows or the ratings are super, super low. I always tell people to get real still and focused. Don’t jump off the ship.
I’ve been writing for 23 years consistently, and my success has come from seizing the moment where it looks like you’re supposed to run. Girlfriends, for instance—nobody would touch it. I went straight to UPN and sold it. So I go to the studios, like, “Hello guys, I have a show—who wants it?” Nobody wanted it. No studio wanted to be the financier of that, even though it was already sold. That’s how Kelsey Grammer got involved. He still had money left on his development slate at Paramount/Viacom. I appreciate him having the business acumen to be like, “Oh shit, she sold it, let’s roll! There’s no work to do.”
There were articles at the same time saying, “UPN is probably gonna collapse in the next six months.” From a business perspective, you can panic and lose your creativity, or you could look at it like, “Well, I got six months, I better write the shit out of this.”
What do you think of what’s happening in the general landscape of television, which now has more so-called diversity than film?
Television is expanding beyond our domestic market—now they’re looking at what’s happening in Africa, Asia, and South America. There’s a global model built for movies, but they’re saying, “Oh, wait a minute, TV can go global too.” What they realize is that the global community is mostly of color, and emerging middle class markets are in places where people look more like all those people here that they didn’t value! [Laughs]
Technology has changed our industry, and I think that’s opened up different revenue streams and ways to make money and distribute television. It’s made the global conversation easier, quicker. The analytics of just social media has also sustained my career. My audience was able to show themselves.
“I always tell people to get real still and focused. Don’t jump off the ship.”—Mara Brock-Akil
For television, is there opportunity in the chaos of the broader world, in the news or on the streets? What’s your role there?
It’s funny, I get a little jealous of musicians because they can respond immediately. So a lot of times I’m having that conversation about what, like, Kendrick is doing. I try to find the arc and use it in, say, a dinner party scene. The chaos that was going around us when it was all Mike Brown, Eric Garner—all tragic, horrible [incidents]. But I was like, “Yo, uh, what about the black women? We’re not even talking about black women. We’ve gotta get this in the conversation.” I went to journalism school, so sometimes writing the script of Being Mary Jane is me putting my journalism hat on.
What are the stories you want to tell with your new WB venture?
I still love talking about women and the contemporary journey of women. I still love talking about women of color. There are places I didn’t get to go with Being Mary Jane. Those things still live in me. The past years have been me getting out what I wanna say about black women. I’m really excited that this deal will be more inclusive of [Salim’s] voice and what he wants to say about black men. No one’s really heard his voice yet.
Do you feel, now, that your work is being watched very closely?
It’s a big stage and there’s a lot more at stake, but Salim and I are reminding ourselves to be ourselves. We are looking forward to the assumption that we want to make art for commerce, and not just product to sell. We are storytellers that consistently have something to say. My husband did an episode of Soul Food years ago, and it was a Mike Brown-like story. He put it on TV a while ago; we’ve been trying to have the conversation this whole time. I’m looking forward to the assets and resources and business acumen, but I’m not unaware that [those things] also comes with their own set of negotiating.
How do you intend to translate those kinds of stories to an audience that’s presumably going to be broader?
By being me. By believing that human stories will connect. By believing that resources and marketing will make them come and they will stay for the story, that they will see themselves. I expect that the broader audience will be there. I think they want more. I think they’re bored with their own story too. Want to know why ratings are down? They need something new. They need us.