Up Close and Personal with Mara Brock Akil

Chanel J Cathey 1 by Chanel Cathey, Viacom
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Cori Murray and Mara Brock Akil at Viacom

As part of a series of events celebrating Black History Month last week, Viacom’s The Beat and HERE partnered to present “A Conversation with Mara Brock Akil.” After an early screening of this week’s episode of BET’s Being Mary Jane, Essence’s Entertainment Director Cori Murray sat down with Mara Brock Akil, the creator and executive producer of hit TV shows “Girlfriends,” “The Game” and “Being Mary Jane” for an hour of what felt like honest girl talk with Viacom and Essence employees. Brock Akil shared her personal take on navigating the entertainment business, her creative process and deep passion to bring beautifully flawed characters to television.

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Mara Brock Akil crafts must-see TV. Just looking around the room at the “Being Mary Jane” screening, everyone was captivated by Mary Jane, played by Gabrielle Union, as she juggled career, family and the quest for love. Brock Akil cites that her characters speak to her during the writing process and surely millions of jubilant fans are glad she listens.

Since the early 2000’s with “Girlfriends” and now with BET’s first original scripted drama, “Being Mary Jane,” Brock Akil creates programming that puts black women in focus and at the center. The writer explored the significance of Mary Jane on television at a time when there’s greater diversity in lead roles in prime time. “With this show I wanted to have a conversation with the audience. It’s really about a woman’s life and our drama is every day.”

The show surfaces real issues ranging from career choices, infidelity, fertility challenges, teen pregnancy to substance abuse and so much more. Topics spring up not only in the characters themselves but in Mary Jane’s news coverage where she takes on national issues like mass incarceration and human trafficking. Brock Akil spotlights topics on purpose and admits “I’m not trying to have all the answers but these are some of the things on my mind.”

Being Mary Jane was just renewed for Season 3 but Brock Akil admitted that the concept came to her years ago during the sixth season of “Girlfriends”. “I thought I wasn’t being truthful enough, we often lie to our girlfriends and ourselves. I saw this character moving through this beautiful house with post its.” A house that she acknowledged is very symbolic – the glass and the reflections are all intentional to play with the notions of transparency and being watched.

Brock Akil was thrilled when an employee also recognized her deliberate choice of music in all of her work. “Music is a muse for me and music can get to the feeling. I write back to the music. I wrote the pilot to the acoustic version of Atlantis Morissette that’s where the name Mary Jane came from. Music is a portal for me.”

The audience loved hearing her words of wisdom as she reflected on the importance of family, faith and being true to who you are. On that topic of authenticity, she referred to a scene where Mary Jane makes assumptions from Instagram and translated that into a life lesson for those in the room.

“Instagram is a place to project our best self. With Instagram we are individual marketers but we have to ask what’s really real? This was an opportunity to say it’s not all real. You don’t know what people are sitting on; you don’t know what people are going through. It’s time to be who we are and free ourselves.”

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Even the smallest scene in a Brock Akil production has layers of meaning and that’s what makes her show so rich and addictive. She spent years cultivating these characters and enjoys being able to partner with BET to bring it to life on Tuesday nights at 10pm. “I didn’t want to do it if I can’t do it right because this is a passion project for me. I hope you see the commitment BET made to the show. That was BET’s first drama – that’s a leap of faith.”

That leap of faith keeps millions tuning in every week for more and is bringing a perspective and dialogue to television that’s diverse, fresh and important. Mara Brock Akil is a pioneer for creating breakout roles for black women in television and encouraged us all “to understand our history and our power as an audience.”

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