TV Creative Finds Success on Her Own Terms

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February 13, 2017

Mara Brock Akil knew she wanted to tell stories. But it wasn’t until she began her interdisciplinary Northwestern education that she realized how, and for what purpose, she would become such a powerful messenger.

“In my career it’s been important for me to have an impact, to tell a story that I think is relevant,” said the TV writer and producer February 8 at an EPICS Connections Speaker Series event in Scott Hall’s Guild Lounge. Akil (J92) has written and produced more than 300 episodes of television, starting with South Central, Moesha, and The Jamie Foxx show. She created the comedy Girlfriends, which premiered in 2000 andran for eight seasons on the CW and UPN; its spinoff, The Game, ran from 2006 to 2015 on the CW and BET. Akil brought scripted television to BET with Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union, which was recently renewed for a fourth season.

Akil, who was joined in discussion by Communication Studies assistant professor Aymar Jean Christian, said she was drawn to Northwestern because of the Medill School of Journalism’s stellar reputation — she had decided early on she wanted to be a writer, and one of the ways she could earn a living writing was through journalism. Once at Northwestern, Akil discovered sketch writing and stage productions and discovered a new passion.

“I wrote this sketch… about Robin Givens and Mike Tyson on the Arsenio Hall show and when the audience laughed at a joke I wrote… It was like a drug. That was a key moment for me,” she said.

Then she heard about a screenwriting class at the School of Communication, tracked down beloved Professor Delle Chatman, and lobbied to be let into the course, even though the class was geared toward seniors and graduate students — and Akil lacked the prerequisites.

“I was pitching then and I didn’t even know it,” she said. “She did let me in… and that course changed my life… And while at Northwestern, what I didn’t know was that I was creating my own module, like Dean O’Keefe is doing right now. I was using my own experience, and finding my own specialties.”

After graduating, her fallback plans were reporting and advertising, but a frustrating journalism internship proved to be a career-deciding factor.

“I’d be pitching these stories involving black people, but they were rejected,” she said. “It was as if they didn’t have value, and it was very sobering. These were facts, and yet they just weren’t considered important.”

She then took a job at the Gap to figure out her next steps. “Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves not to know,” Akil said. “Especially with you Type-A Northwestern students. But it’s okay to hit pause, to not know your next step.”

Akil then auditioned for a part in a film being shot in Chicago, With Honors. Once she stepped on the movie set, she said, she knew that was where she wanted to be. It was this experience that prompted a move to Hollywood, where Akil, with a friend’s help, landed a job as a low-level production assistant on The Sinbad Show.

“There are a lot of talented people out there, but when I arrived at work, I was on time, happy to be there and I looked for ways to add value in whatever I did, and I think that really helped me succeed,” she said. “People are looking for those qualities.” 

Once she moved up and began pitching her own projects, she said it wasn’t always easy selling shows featuring women of color.

“In the history of Hollywood, we were only really given opportunities when the networks were desperate,” she said. “When the Cosby Show came, people thought the half-hour sitcom was completely dead. Then, Cosby resurrected it. I got Girlfriends greenlit on the UPN when they thought the network was dying, when it wouldn’t be around in six months. I got the show because I could somehow make a dollar out of fifteen cents. I don’t think it’s right to get desperate budgets in desperate times, but I’ll say that it’s still an opportunity. The restrictive boundaries made me more creative.”

Akil is now writing and executive producing the new DC Comics-based show Black Lightning alongside her husband, Salim Akil, and fellow Wildcat Greg Berlanti (C94). The story centers around the eponymous superhero who deals less with supervillains and more with everyday crime. “Imagine if you dropped a superhero into the middle of The Wire,” she explained.

Rebecca Angoyar, a junior at Weinberg School of Medicine, said she was a fan and enjoyed listening to Akil speak.

“Mara has done so much in her career for so many people and I’m grateful to her for the shows she’s created,” Angoyar said.

Diane Arthur, a senior at the school of Education and Social Policy, said she thought Akil’s groundbreaking work affected many in the room. “I was struck by the fact that so many people here have been touched by her work, and how much of an impact she’s made.”

-Cara Lockwood