Mara Brock Akil is the TV writer and producer behind shows including the current BET series “Being Mary Jane,” which just started its third season, starring Gabrielle Union as a TV anchor struggling to juggle her professional and personal life.
Before that, Akil had “Girlfriends,” which ran for eight years on UPN and The CW; and “The Game,” which ended its nine-season run this summer — first on The CW, then BET.
Her shows have brought something to television it’s often lacked: authentic black female voices.
The success of “The Game” set the stage for a wave of prime-time dramas featuring black lead actors — including Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” and Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s “Empire.”
Akil, 45, recently signed a multiyear deal with Warner Bros. TV for Akil Productions, which she runs with her director-husband Salim Akil, to develop shows for the big networks.
She spoke with reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika while back in Chicago to get an alumni award from Northwestern University, where she graduated in 1992 with a journalism degree. A condensed transcript follows.
“Being back in Chicago brings it home. It’s proof of the journey. It makes it real. It might have been just a short time ago, but I’m thinking about that girl who only applied to Northwestern. My mother couldn’t afford the college visit, but I’d decided I was going. All I knew is that I wanted to write.
“I often say I’m a mixed-breed — from Los Angeles and Canton, Missouri. I recognize Kansas City as the roll-up-your-sleeve hard worker in me. L.A. is the dreamer.
“At Northwestern, I wasn’t sure I was interested in screenwriting until I had a class, and my professor pushed me on the path. There was that moment when you think, ‘That’s why I’m here.’ I knew what it had to be.
“I was raised by a mainly single mom. There were financial challenges, but I have a grandmother who stressed education. We were expected to do well. The beautiful thing about my mother, Joan, is she went from an entry-level job to regional manager with a company and waitressed at night to make ends meet.
“I could have gotten an advertising job in Chicago, but something in my spirit said: ‘Do not accept that job, or you’re going to live for that paycheck.’ You get caught. You have to pay the bills.
“I applied to all of these Hollywood screenwriting apprenticeships but didn’t get any. I decided: Let me just get a job that pays. I became assistant manager at The Gap. That was humbling. To supplement that income, I did a little acting on the side.
“By this time, I’m writing, trying to figure out how you get to Hollywood. I said, ‘I can’t wait any more.’ I sold what little possessions I had and drove cross-country. My family in L.A. helped me pay for food, got me a job, helped me take that breath and figure it out till I got a role in my first show.
“When The CW got rid of ‘The Game,’ there was not that much on TV featuring black actors. Then, in 2011, BET launched ‘The Game,’ and it hit. Shonda launches ‘Scandal’ in 2012, also a hit. ABC started saying, ‘What is going on?’
“ ‘Being Mary Jane’ came, and we hit. Then, ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ hit. I’m very proud that Akil Productions was part of and helped to create this moment we’re in for black actors, actresses and directors.
“In ‘Mary Jane,’ we cover so much —drug addiction, sex trafficking of young girls, the prison population, the brother who sells weed, the niece who is a teenage mother, food deserts, divorce, stress at work, suicide.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’ve made it.’ I actually think I’m still just getting started.
“To be seen and recognized is important to the human condition. I think that’s one reason I do what I do because we need to be seen. When you look in your magazine, read the book or news article, when you look at TV and movies, you want to see yourself.
“It’s almost like you want that pat on the shoulder — the: ‘You’re doing a good job.’ It’s, like, ‘Oh? Oh, God, thank you, thank you.’ When that which you chose chooses you, that’s powerful.”