Mara Brock Akil has a lot on her plate, but she’s not complaining – in fact, she’s willing to share the secret of her success with industry newcomers.
The producer/director (Girlfriends, The Game, Being Mary Jane) is joining husband/business partner Salim Akil, producer Stephanie Allain, People movie critic Alynda Wheat, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes, and actress Regina King to judge Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood Short Film Contest. The aim of the contest is to find emerging filmmakers to help create multidimensional black female characters, in contrast to the narrow depictions commonly presented in media. The winner will be honored in the company of A-listers during the seventh annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon on Feb. 27.
“I’m excited to see what’s on the minds of young filmmakers, what they are thinking about,” Akil tells Entertainment Weekly. “This generation has grown up with technology, which allows an easier opportunity to express yourself. Before, you needed a crew of many just to get an image captured. So I’m wondering where the creativity will lead in the expression that’s on their minds.”
Throughout her career, Akil has stuck to the hitmaking formula of telling the stories of everyday characters through the black female lens. She and her husband have a possible new hit on their hands with BET’s Being Mary Jane (premiering in January), and The Game, now in its seventh season, started out on The CW before moving to BET in 2011 and garnering 7.7 million viewers for its premiere. “Any form of media is an opportunity to be a mirror and reflection of what we are experiencing more in the details of our life,” Akil said. “What makes it fun and unique in a lot of ways is how that journey is changing just by the mere fact of the current time. I love writing about black women, but if you go beyond that, we’re human beings – and because we’re human beings, it’s universal for everybody.”
Akil’s not the only who’s found success with this formula. Malcolm Lee , director of The Best Man Holiday, used this formula of universal storytelling through an African-American cast and found box-office success last weekend. Some critics consider the work of African-American casts and directors as just that: Black movies.
“Being black, Latino, or Asian is not a genre. Romantic comedies, thrillers, action – those are genres,” Akil said. “I think there’s a lot of people who want to have the conversation. I don’t think people are afraid of it, I just think it’s the time to have that conversation. Race is not a genre. Two, the message in this is: Make a good movie, market it very well, tell me when it’s coming out, remind me often when it’s coming out in my busy life, and that’s what happened [with Best Man Holiday]. They made a good movie, they marketed it, and people showed up.”
Akil doesn’t let the barriers of color or race bound her. She says it’s all about hard work. “Being in this industry is a challenge. For me, I stopped worrying about mainstream, and I just did my best,” she said. “Following what my grandmother and my mother taught me, if you want to be 10 times better, be 10 times better – what’s wrong with that? If you want something, work hard for it, go after it. I can’t worry about all the no’s, because I believe there’s a yes, and I’ve been very fortunate to find those in my career and made the most of those opportunities.”
Akil is pulling out all stops for Being Mary Jane, her new Gabrielle Union-starring series, premiering Jan. 7 on BET. The series, which was ordered after 4 million viewers tuned in to the TV movie in July, has so many twists and turns, it could go on forever. “I am so proud of this series that I’m now saying that if you miss it, you have missed out,” Akil said. “I am so proud of the collective team effort of creativity and talent that is abundant in this project. We just completed the final touches, and what you can expect is a breath of fresh air. I can’t wait for people to see Gabrielle Union’s amazing performance. When I wrote the pilot, I just threw it all in and didn’t hold back. A lot of times you just want to save the reveals for the season finale. Well, I wrote the pilot believing that I would never get to write the season finale.
“Mary Jane Paul is smart, savvy, and determined that she will never find herself in an affair, and we answer why someone as beautiful, talented, and successful and smart as herself can find herself in this situation, which I think a lot of people ask,” she continued. “We examine in our first season the anatomy of an affair, through the course of the season. Not to mention that she still has to juggle family, career, all the hats that she wears, and she’s still single and alone.”
Along with a new series premiering, two new pilots in development, and being happily married, Akil said she’s grateful to be surrounded by a strong professional and personal support system. “I’m just very happy to be in the company of such great filmmakers and storytellers who happen to be my really good friends,” she said. “I’m on cloud nine and feel honored to give back.”
The final deadline for submissions in the Essence Short Film Contest is Dec. 5. For more information, click here.