On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Mara Brock Akil is, aptly, in a reflective mood. This feeling isn’t foreign to her, but yoga, meditation and more time sitting still in her Los Angeles home than ever before due to the pandemic has put a lot into perspective. Especially given that coronavirus coincided with her 50th year of life and 20 years since her hit show “Girlfriends” premiered. She had plans to be in Morocco for her birthday in May. She had plans to do so much. The past year didn’t look like she expected it to, but it’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.
“On my birthday, I asked, ‘What have I given?’” Brock Akil told me. “What’s important to me is that I leave more behind than I take away. That my time in this life, this life 50 years so far, that I have given more than I have taken, and I think if we all can think about that, maybe we can thwart another pandemic, that we can get through the one that we’re currently in, for sure.”
Though she’s on the phone, you can feel an undeniable warmth in her voice. A warmth that acknowledges that the world is fucked up but reminds you that she sees you. It’s a feeling of understanding that only Black women can bestow upon each other in times of uncertainty that says without saying, “I got you.”
She’s the warmth that helps flowers find their bloom.
She’s also a mirror. Brock Akil is best known for showing the world a diverse look at Black women’s lives through her shows “Girlfriends,” “The Game,” “Being Mary Jane” and “Love Is.” For nearly 30 years, she has created and written for classic shows that have broken the mold of how Black characters are able to exist on television. Through this, she’s allowed Black audiences, especially women, to see themselves reflected through multidimensional characters.
And her work, namely on “Girlfriends” and “The Game,” has found new relevance through Netflix’s Strong Black Lead programming, which brought these shows to the streaming platform along with five other classic titles. UPN, WB and The CW housed several Black sitcoms in the late ’90s and early aughts that gave audiences, actors and showrunners a TV home.
Though these shows broke barriers and became staples in homes nationwide, “Girlfriends” didn’t get its due credit at the time, even among some Black audiences. Through Joan, Toni, Maya and Lynn, Brock Akil was able to tap into issues Black women — and oftentimes men through the central male best friend, William — face, including love, sex, friendships and career. And the show was never afraid to dive headfirst into topics that were more taboo, including a four-episode arc that explored how severely the HIV/AIDS epidemic was affecting Black women.
These characters were flawed, and it wasn’t hard to miss. Brock Akil explained that her goal wasn’t to correct harmful stereotypes about Black women by creating “positive” representation. That’s not, and shouldn’t be, her job as a creator. Instead, she’s always sought to ensure that her characters’ humanity is shown first.
“I am not interested in positive characters or negative characters, and what’s interesting is the Black community actually often asked for positive characters,” Brock Akil said. “And what it does is it keeps a lot of artists stuck. That’s a burden. That is not an honor to ask me as a creator to rewrite what was wrong in the first place. It’s almost validating them. And it shouldn’t be our responsibility as Black creators. That’s not my responsibility. That was some BS to begin with, and then why am I trying to clean up BS that’s not mine? That’s not mine.”
With “Girlfriends,” she wasn’t ahead of her time. Much of the world was just embarrassingly slow.
Jasmyn Lawson, former editorial manager at Strong Black Lead, worked for roughly a year to bring the show and other Black classics to Netflix. “Girlfriends” came out when she was 9 or 10 years old. Today, Lawson is a content executive at the streamer hoping to tell stories that have an impact similar to those Brock Akil created.
“Mara Brock Akil was a Black woman who created this show specifically for Black women to tell their stories, with all their flaws and messiness and not to be perfect, not to constantly be this magical person that doesn’t mess up. But it showed how we love each other and build on our friendship and improve on our flaws — and also be laugh-out-loud funny,” Lawson said. “I want to create these shows, and I want other Black women to be able to do the same. Those things come full circle, and they matter. Without her or someone laying the blueprint, it wouldn’t be possible, for even someone behind the scenes like me, to envision that I can have this type of career.”
With the series becoming available on the largest streaming service globally — in the year of its 20th anniversary, no less — Brock Akil said God has thrown her a “surprise party.” She’s belatedly getting her flowers from loyal audiences, young and old, who are sharing both relatable and controversial moments.
Along with her flowers, she received an overall deal with Netflix. With the partnership, she’ll write and produce scripted and other creative projects for the streaming platform.
“I come to Netflix with beautiful Black women who have championed me when no one else did, when our voices were less valuable in the marketplace overall, across media, than they are today,” she said. “Before we had agency through social media to make it, make it plain apparently you didn’t hear me. Do you hear me now?”
Brock Akil, born in Los Angeles and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, has written and produced more than 400 episodes of television in 27 years. Her career started shortly after she graduated from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. Her passion for storytelling took her in a different direction, however.
“I really appreciate learning the who, what, when, where, but it’s the why,” she said of her journalistic training. “I said, OK, I’m gonna tell the truth through fiction. And it allows me to when I go exploring why a character is this way. [An] aspect of journalism that kicks in is the research, putting characters in context to history and life and what’s going on, but to be able for me to execute it in a way that you don’t even know it’s a history lesson. It feels like entertainment, but it is grounded in that.”
She began writing for TV in 1994 with “South Central,” a short-lived series on Fox. Then Brock Akil went on to write on “Moesha” for four seasons, where she was under the tutelage of writers and producers who taught her how to make good TV.
“I naturally give the best of who I am to those who are around me because the best was given to me, and I think it’s important to talk about legacy, not just what I did for others, but who Ralph Farquhar, Sara Finney-Johnson, Vida Spears are, and what they did for me,” Brock Akil said.
She especially spoke highly of executive producer Farquhar, who helped lay the blueprint for much of her work.
“I really appreciate the way he ran ‘Moesha’ and that he gave access to us and taught us how to, I say, make the sausage, not just write script, but how do you produce that,” she said reminiscently. “Ralph has a high bar. I wanted to learn from him. He learned from [film director] Garry Marshall, and so all that legacy is within me.”
Her voice was critical in bringing complex and relatable female characters to the screen on “Moesha” and “The Jamie Foxx Show.”
As her name moved up the credits to showrunner and she began to create pivotal shows, she kept this idea of legacy close by pouring into those around her. She gave Tracee Ellis Ross, Jill Marie Jones, Pooch Hall (“The Game”), Will Catlett (“Love Is”) and so many other Black actors their big break. She also gave Gabrielle Union (“Being Mary Jane”) her first starring role in a TV series. While bringing Black actors to the forefront, she nurtured many of today’s most notable names behind the camera, including “Insecure” showrunner Prentice Penny and screenwriter Lena Waithe.
While creating her shows, Brock Akil was able to lift as she climbed.
“I’m really proud of me. What you see blossomed in me and how I have been able to see it in others, and inspire others, and offer the best of who I am to those who are around me,” she said. “The mentorship that I have offered — to Prentice, to Kenya Barris, to Karen Gist, to Kenny Smith, to Jenifer Rice-Genzuk, to Lena — what it allowed me to do is to recognize who I am.”
She spoke very highly of her dear friend and TV producer Felicia D. Henderson, with whom she worked on “Moesha.” Brock Akil said that she and Henderson are a part of each other’s successes in Hollywood and in their personal lives. In 2016, they even teamed up with Gina Prince-Bythewood and Finney-Johnson to create a scholarship for film students who wanted to tell Black stories. Here’s how she describes her sisterhood with Henderson.
“It looks like laughter. It looks like tears. It looks like holding each other’s hand. It looks like fussing at each other. It looks like giving each other time,” she rejoiced. “And we hold a lot of each other’s not only memories and dreams, but we remind each other of our beauty. It looks like a safe place.”
She continued, “And when you see me getting that Netflix deal and everyone patting me on the back, I believe Felicia is a part of that because she reminded me to go get the things that I want, not always taking care of everybody else first before we take care of ourselves.”
As she showered Henderson with praises, a flower delivery arrived at her door. As excited as Brock Akil was, one would’ve thought the arrangement was for her. But they were for a woman she identified as her “lifeline,” Monica, for her birthday. Brock Akil had mentioned to her husband and TV partner, Salim Akil, that he should send her flowers. She was just as happy to see someone she knew receive flowers they deserve as she may have been to get her own bouquet.
After she lifted Monica’s name, she jumped right back into celebrating Henderson.
“I think that, that’s why you need this friendship and good relationship in our lives. We are just reflections of each other. We’re just mirrors of each other.”
Henderson had her own flowers to give her “sister colleague” and Delta Sigma Theta soror. Henderson told HuffPost that she, Brock Akil, Finney-Johnson and Prince-Bythewood have a support system that plays a critical role in her life, especially in emotionally challenging times.
“I have a central heart that has many parts in this business, and Mara is part of that. She’s my heart,” Henderson said. “In one way, it’s a reminder like you’re my sister, and the term is also a reminder that, do or die, if you ever need me for anything regarding your career, to read a script, to listen to a concept, to pass something by, to cry when you didn’t get something you should have, to cry if you get fired from a project that is your own, if your project gets taken off the air and it shouldn’t have been, sister colleague means all of that.”
“I truly don’t know what I would do without her,” Henderson added. “To be honest, I truly don’t.”
Brock Akil’s world of making sure Black people’s humanity is depicted accurately has taken different shapes over the years. Her characters have evolved as she’s evolved. With “Girlfriends,” she was asking the question “As a young, ambitious woman, can I have it all?” through the four main characters. With its spinoff, “The Game,” she said she was more assured that “we are going to win” and showed what support looks like to get to victory.
In “Being Mary Jane,” protagonist Mary Jane Paul (Union) was still on the road to success but wanted to let go of the lies holding her back.
“Yeah, I’m a strong Black woman, but maybe I’m also a vulnerable Black woman,” Brock Akil said. “Maybe I’m an impatient Black woman. Maybe I’m also a scared Black woman. Maybe I’m also a tired Black woman. Maybe the family doesn’t need me as much as I think they need me Black woman.”
And with “Love Is,” based on her relationship with Akil, she wanted to be reminded of the importance of Black love and the many ways it manifests beyond romance through the journey of Nuri (Michele Weaver) and Yasir (Catlett).
The rich stories she’s been able to create, as well as her direct mentorship, has helped shape today’s TV. And Brock Akil isn’t shy about accepting that as a part of her legacy. She stands on the shoulders of giants who are able to support her as she uplifts the Black TV creators of today.
“I’m very proud of this next generation of storytellers who are still here carving out new space, creating more stories of that humanity, to leave the lane open and the door open, so, like you said, I’m still in my stride. To build on the legacy of what we always knew from the beginning is that our stories are valuable, our stories are needed and they’re universal.”
She isn’t naive about the biases in her industry and how they have played a role in some of her obstacles. Each of the series she created didn’t end wrapped with a pretty bow on top, though they were culturally influential. But Brock Akil compares the period when she came up in the game with the TV landscape today and sees the progress that’s happened and is still happening. She pointed specifically to actor and creator Issa Rae and Penny’s “Insecure” as an example.
“How successful they were able to negotiate the HBO deal, they opened something up,” she said proudly. “And even from my perspective, they got to end their story. That’s progress! Even with time in which certainly I didn’t get to end my story. And there were others that didn’t get in the door because there was lack of value [for our stories] for whatever reason.”
Rae, who’s cited “Girlfriends” as an inspiration, told HuffPost that it means “everything” to know Brock Akil reveres her work.
“There’s just so much that she’s done. And I thank her for that. There’s not an opportunity for me in this industry without all the work that she’s done. And even the way that Prentice leads the room, so much of what he learned came from her run, and I love the way our room is run,” the actor and “Awkward Black Girl” creator said. “She’s really a pioneer. And because I think her shows were on CW or WB or UPN and they were Black-led. They didn’t get the respect that she deserved, but she’s been doing it and should be on the same levels as the David E. Kelleys and other showrunners.”
Brock Akil also addressed the number of Black shows on network TV today compared with the 1990s and 2000s. She said that networks had different budgets allocated to half-hour sitcoms that aimed to garner an immediate Black audience without using too many resources. Though fewer Black shows are on network TV today, the quality and depth of Black stories are wide-ranging.
“I mean, look what Shonda did with ‘Bridgerton,’” Brock Akil said, pointing to one of Netflix’s most-streamed shows in its history. “So sometimes I do see the progress in that. And what’s beautiful about progress is now Black people are saying, oh, no, no, no, you just can’t give us these because we were starving. Back then, we were hungry for our image. And so we showed up without any marketing, without any budget, without anything, because we just didn’t have much.”
To carry on with progress, she said, TV powerhouses, herself included, must continue to reach back to pull forward, “like Ralph taught me how to make the sausage.”
Don’t mistake Brock Akil’s veteran status as a sign that she’s riding off into the sunset. She’s very much still in her stride and has big dreams. She’ll continue to tell Black stories, but she also wanted to help other marginalized folks see their humanity in the spotlight as well. This aligns with the mission statement for her production company, story27. Her dreams also include diving into different genres.
“I do have a fantasy of my own ‘Game of Thrones’ one day,” she said in a daydreamy way that signals that the spark to tell new stories is alive and well. “I want to talk about what it’s like being a 50-year-old modern woman in modern times. I still want to do things like that. But I also have some real projects in the fire. And a part of me is a little old school; I kind of don’t want to say until I drop it, ’cause it’s actually happening! It’s in development. They’re actually cooking. So, those couple projects I just shared are things that I still need to reach for.”
But the one question she can’t escape: Will we ever get to see a proper ending for “Girlfriends”? That desire is still there. She told HuffPost that the right opportunity hasn’t presented itself, yet. Everyone asks her whether Joan gets married in the end, but the loose end Brock Akil is most interested in tying up is Toni and Joan’s friendship. Their relationship came to an abrupt end in the Season 6 finale, when Joan skipped out on Toni’s child custody hearing after a long night of disastrous partying, which also coincided with Jones wanting to leave the series.
“Toni loved Joan. Getting a man? She could do that, you know, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but to have Joan’s love, and to hold on to Joan was so important. And she had so many layers to her that were not so fun to deal with. I’m happy to have been consistent with the character to the end,” she said.
“I can still write that, I can still do that, but how can I bring in a new voice and show them how to ‘make the sausage’ but also speak to an audience who still wants to talk about the modern-day friendship amongst women? It can be told differently.”
With new creations under her Netflix deal on the horizon, Brock Akil is making sure that she’s staying true to herself and her creative vision. “I started my career asking Joan could she have it all, and Mara is still trying to do that.”
A couple of days after her interview, Brock Akil’s team emailed a statement from the showrunner, detailing her process of manifesting it all:
“It has become a practice of sitting still to have an honest conversation with myself about the things I want and why. Once clear, I plant my seeds of hopes and dreams in that safe place. Then I set my internal compass to gratitude for EVERYTHING in my life. Gratitude allows me to stay in the flow of my life which includes being alert and aware of the opportunities the universe is preparing for me. Most of the work is me getting out of my own way (through meditation, yoga, breathwork) to clear out the doubt and fear that creeps up and clouds the path and my alignment to my dreams. Manifesting also requires that I learn to recognize the gifts of ‘set backs’ as lessons or tests or needed advice to make sure I am prepared for what I asked for. Getting out of my own way allows me to ultimately trust that the Universe is conspiring with me to co-create the visions that I hold in my heart.”
It’s clear Brock Akil isn’t done giving to the world.