How Mara Brock Akil Runs A Writers’ Room

Kim Masters’ entire profile of Salim and Mara Brock Akil, who often work together (she writing, he directing) is worth a read, particularly for its analysis of the ways that two African-American Muslims found their ways into the movie and television industries, given how much we talk about gatekeeping and gatekeepers here. But I also wanted to highlight these three paragraphs, which I think say a great deal about the relative position in Hollywood of content that focuses on non-white characters, and the dynamics of writers’ rooms:

“Like anyone else in television, I like to explore my life experience,” Salim says. “And I don’t think African-American artists see doing shows or art about African-Americans as something ‘less than.’ I think maybe the industry sometimes does. We don’t get as much attention, we don’t get critical acclaim and so on. But as far as my perspective, it’s a natural thing. And it doesn’t limit me because all I’m really doing is telling American stories.”

Mara agrees, though she is dismayed that the actresses in Girlfriends did not get the awards recognition that she feels they deserved. And while she believes that much of her success derives from the spice of a diverse writers room, she gets annoyed that there is rarely a similar approach on shows that don’t have predominantly black casts. Kenny Smith, who worked with Mara on Jamie Foxx and is now an executive producer on The Game, says Mara relies on writers from different backgrounds and genders to create authentic emotional notes. And she doesn’t worry about political correctness. “When we’re developing stories in the room, she wants guys to be guys,” he says. “And if it’s sexist and ugly, she wants the women to respond as they actually would. It’s like, ‘Let’s not sugar-coat this.’ It’s always courageous.”

Mara is also aware that UPN launched Girlfriends — and other shows revolving around African-Americans — because they were seen as cheap audience magnets. She says new networks like UPN or Fox, back then, “didn’t believe you have to spend a lot of money to get [the audience] to come because we’re so hungry to see ourselves that we’ll just show up and find it. That is not the case, by the way.” But Mara says the experience taught her to do a lot with a tight budget.

It’s a mystery to me why any showrunner would be comfortable with a writers’ room with a narrow range of life experiences unless they’re doing an insanely tightly focused show about one sort of person, and if they were, why they’d even bother with a full room unless, like Aaron Sorkin, they need research monkeys. I just don’t have that kind of confidence. But then, I guess I don’t have the chutzpah to be asking for a couple million dollars a week to execute my storytelling vision, either.