First Take: Mara Brock Akil’s Blueprint For Running Your Own Show

Mara Brock Akil has made it her business to tell our stories. Inspired by The Cosby Show and A Different World, the Kansas City-raised writer, producer and show runner looked to those sitcoms for diverse narratives. The Northwestern alum earned her stripes on ’90s classics such as The Jamie Foxx Show and Moesha, but soon stepped into her own light with the wildly popular (and hilarious) Girlfriends.

For eight seasons, viewers watched as four women navigated life, love and career (and secretly lusted after all the items in Joan’s closet). Here, we were able to see women of color in complex situations that showcased their individuality and humanity. Now, Mara has us all wrapped around her little finger (or pen) with her sexy BET hit Being Mary Jane. Every Tuesday night, millions tune in to see Gabrielle Union’s character Mary Jane Paul hopefully inch a little bit closer to making her personal life as successful as her professional.

VIBE spoke with Mara about when she realized screenwriting was her calling, the village that raised her, working with her husband and the one thing all young women should do.

My MLK Moment (Realizing The Dream):
I always had an interest in screenwriting and I finally took a [screenwriting] course during my senior year at Northwestern University, wrote my first screenplay, and I literally fell in love. The same feeling I have for a guy, I had for that script. I couldn’t wait to get back to the script, I only wanted to be with my script and that’s the first time characters came alive for me. Even today, I live with my characters and I prefer sometimes their company over real people’s company. (Laughs)

My second step was I could’ve taken a $30,000 job, but I knew I would have bills and wouldn’t know how to get myself out of that situation because I like to shop. I was willing to sacrifice that nice life until I got the one I really wanted. So I worked at The Gap for a year until I could figure out what my next step was, and ultimately I needed to be in L.A. Finally, I came out here and did it the hard way, which was entry level production assistant jobs and navigating myself to this moment. I came with the notion that I would pursue my career as a writer in television and film.

On realizing a change was needed on television:
A Different World opened me up to the possibility of that being a career. I was excited about the show. It made me feel slightly regretful about not going to HBCU. (Laughs) Kidding. I love Northwestern. Then there was The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air so there were all these beautiful black faces on television and it being done on a great level in terms of television, and then it just went away. It was like, ‘Whoa! Where did our stories go?’

Then it came back because new networks emerged. So when I got out of college, left The Gap and moved to L.A., there was UPN and the WB. So when you want to start something new, need our help or don’t have a lot of money to spend, they let us in. I benefited from that with the Sinbad Show on UPN and from there, I got to meet wonderful mentors. Then, it went away again. Once networks became successful, they didn’t need us anymore. But when I saw Sex and The City, I didn’t see myself represented. Also, the type of shows that were on for black people were more like family sitcoms. I wanted to do sophisticated [shows] for young adults. Yvette Lee Bowser had Living Single, and I wanted to build upon that and do something sexier and edgier. I thought, ‘My friends are a lot like that’ and that’s what motivated me to create Girlfriends. The Cosby Show and A Different World era excited me and showed it was possible. Thankfully, I rode the wave and figured out how to use my moment in television when the networks were trying to use us to build their networks.

Three tips for building a strong TV show:
Number one would be having a vision. What do you want to say? And really knowing why you want to say something, and then creating a world and characters that allow you to say these things. Number two would be character, character, character! You need to develop that character. You need to know that character backwards, forwards, ins and outs. Personally, I don’t know how you tell a story without knowing your character. Lastly, knowing your craft and knowing the rules before you try to break them.

On the importance of having a village:
One of my mentors is my mother. My mother was basically a single mother and I watched her be a career woman and a mom. She also taught me a lot about budgeting and management, and I not only witnessed her successes but also her failures. She helped me remember the totality of who I am. I am not just a writer and producer. I am many things. I think in the business, I certainly would say Debbie Allen was the first woman I witnessed own her space, and her place as a director and a creator. She did it with such confidence and clarity, and she really set a tone. When Debbie walks in any room, she is a master of being herself. Also, Sara V. Finney and Vida Spears who created Moesha. To me, they represent loyalty, and just do the work. They were the ones who were quietly always doing the work. But I would not be here without Ralph Farquhar. He taught me everything. He taught me how to be a great show runner by being a show runner and by allowing me in the process. As much as I wanted to do it all, he allowed me to do it all. Aside from my mom, he has been the most hands-on, and has been the biggest influence in my career.

The benefits of working with your husband:
Oh gosh! There are so many great parts. A part of our courtship was me falling in love with his art and who he is as an artist. He’s my best friend. In this business, it feels a lot like you’re going to summer camp all the time. Everyone’s friendly. There’s a lot of agendas because money and fame go hand in hand. He is just someone that I can completely trust. He completely has my back I completely have his back. I get to work with my best friend and on top of that, he’s my husband and my lover. If I don’t get my way, I know how to get my way. (Laughs)

On what Mara is doing for Mara:
Exercise. I used to exercise strictly for vanity. Now, in the last three years, I exercise for my mental and physical health, so I need that and definitely do that for me. The thing I’m going to do more of is travel and read more. Reading is such a luxury and if I could say anything to you women who have a lot more time than I do and don’t have the demands of motherhood and wife, I would read and travel as much as I could. I would tell anybody do that right now at whatever financial place you’re at.

On what I want my sons to know about women:
Our femininity is valuable and a life force that they need. It’s not weak. Hearing a woman’s opinion is needed and it’s not additive. Having a woman’s touch and perspective is needed. My sons both see me as someone who can do many things. I also want them to value women and their femininity and appreciate the beauty for those purposes, but also for the purpose of valuing and protecting women’s bodies, place space and voice.

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