Mara Brock Akil On Playing 'The Game' In Hollywood

Jan 10, 2012
Originally published on January 10, 2012 3:29 pm

Mara Brock Akil is a Hollywood rarity. Black, Muslim, and a mother of two, she's also one of the most powerful women in Hollywood and one-half of an industry power couple, along with her director husband, Salim Akil.

Akil created The Game, one of the most popular shows on cable television. It's a comedy-drama about the wives and girlfriends behind a pro football team. It's her second show — the first was Girlfriends, which aired on UPN, then The CW network for eight years.

Akil started working in television soon after graduating from Northwestern university. It's a male-dominated business, and it wasn't long before she realized her fellow writers were missing something.

"I started by like — 'Well, I don't think a woman would say that.' You know?" she remembers from her Los Angeles production office, her 7-year-old son playing in the next room. "I don't think that's really our experience, or it's not every woman's experience. Then I was like ... 'Hey, wait a minute, where is a black woman in this story?!'"

Black women are the heart of The Game. Melanie, the main character, is a medical student (later a doctor) at the beginning of the series. Her boyfriend (later husband) is a rookie who needs her to get along with a smug sorority of football wives in order to advance his career.

"Isn't your man a third-string wide receiver?" sniffs one of them during their first introduction. "Why are you even talking?"

The Game revels in the glamour and immense wealth enjoyed by sports heroes, but its story arcs focus on families, the game's intense physical danger and pro football's stew of race and class.

"I hit the stereotypes dead on," says Akil, with some satisfaction. "The stereotype of a lot of athletes are, they come from the ghettos, they buy their mamas a house, they're loud and audacious."

While that does describe Malik, the team's star quarterback and his bossy mother/manager, Akil says her mission is to create relatable human characters, not cartoons. And she mixes in topical issues, like the closeted gay player who horrifies much of his team when he comes out.

The Game aired on The CW for three seasons, then was summarily canceled.

"It was humbling for me," Akil admits. "I'm a winner. ... Meaning even if it doesn't look like I'm winning, I believe I'm winning. But that time it was kind of tough."

But then something happened that almost never happens: BET picked up The Game in 2010, and the fourth season's premiere drew almost 8 million people --a record for the network, and impressive numbers for any channel.

"That outdraws most of the regular-run programming on NBC on any night," comments Time magazine critic James Poniewozik. "Excepting maybe football. Maybe it helps that The Game has football involved in it — although that didn't help Friday Night Lights."

The Game is no critical darling like Friday Night Lights, but it brings perspectives and points of view not often seen in TV or mainstream film. And the Akils are slowly conquering both mediums. They surprised many in Hollywood last year with a hit movie, Jumping The Broom.

So far, none of the characters created by Mara Brock Akil share her Muslim faith.

"It has to be right the moment, the right character at the right time," she says. "And I do think we're coming close."

First though, the Akils need to finish their update of the 1976 film Sparkle, filming now in Detroit. (The story of a Supremes-style Motown group, it'll star Cee-Lo Green, Whitney Houston and American Idol winner Jordin Sparks.)

And they've signed a long-term development deal with BET that might include a show about black women and marriage. Akil says there's a powerful conversation to have about that topic — and she says TV is a powerful way for her to lead it.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the most popular shows on cable television returns tonight to the network BET. "The Game" is about the people who really run pro football - the players, wives and girlfriends. NPR's Neda Ulaby says the creator of "The Game" is a Hollywood rarity.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Mara Brock Akil is black, Muslim and a mother of two. She's been one of television's most powerful women since 2000, when she created a show that ran on UPN then the CW Network for eight years.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLFRIENDS")

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: "Girlfriends" was about a group of smart, funny women who talked about everything from Zora Neal Hurston to men - well, mostly men. Mara Brock Akil started working in television soon after graduating from Northwestern University and realized her fellow writers were missing something.

MARA BROCK AKIL: I started by, like, well, I don't think a woman would say. You know, I don't think that's really our experience or it's not every woman's experience. It really started with that. Then I was like, well, I don't think that - hey, wait a minute. Where is a black woman in this story?

ULABY: Black women are the heart of "The Game."

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GAME" THEME MUSIC)

ULABY: The main character is a medical student. Her boyfriend is a rookie wide receiver on an NFL team. He coaches her through exams.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GAME")

ULABY: But here's the catch: his success depends on how well she fits in with a smug sorority of football wives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GAME")

ULABY: Glamour and wealth are part of "The Game"'s lure. But it's also about families, the sport's intense physical danger, and pro football's stew of race and class.

AKIL: Oftentimes you'll see that I hit the stereotype dead-on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GAME")

AKIL: The stereotypes of a lot of athletes are they come from the ghetto, they buy their mama a house, they're loud and audacious.

ULABY: But Mara Brock Akil wants to create relatable characters, not cartoons. And she mixes in topical issues, like a player on the down low. When he comes out as gay, one teammate is horrified and needs to get talked down by the light-skinned captain.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GAME")

ULABY: "The Game" aired on the CW for three seasons, then it got cancelled.

AKIL: It was very humbling for me. I'm a winner, so to speak, meaning even if it doesn't look like I'm winning, I believe I'm winning. But that time, it was kind of rough.

ULABY: But then something happened that almost never happens: BET took on "The Game." TV critic James Poniewozik says the show drew almost eight million people when it started its fourth season.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK: That outdraws most of the regular run programming on NBC on any night, you know, excepting maybe football. Maybe it helps that "The Game" has football involved in it, although, you know, that also didn't help "Friday Night Lights."

ULABY: "The Game" is not a critical darling like "Friday Night Lights," but Poniewozik appreciates the perspective it brings. "The Game"'s mainly directed by Salim Akil, Mara Brock Akil's husband. Last year they surprised many in Hollywood with a hit movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JUMPING THE BROOM")

ULABY: "Jumping the Broom," like so much of the Akils' work, explores race and class. Mara Brock Akil says she and her husband brainstorm while they're driving around.

AKIL: You just go for a ride and we just start talking. You know, I was thinking - and the next thing you know you have this incredible character or a series or a movie idea or whatever. It really happens a lot just driving around, grab a coffee, grab a tea.

ULABY: Mixing the serious with the silly is Mara Brock Akil's stock and trade. But she has yet to write a character who shares her deeply felt Muslim faith.

AKIL: It has to be the right moment, the right character at the right time. And I do think it's coming close.

ULABY: First, though, the Akils are remaking the movie "Sparkle" from 1976; that's loosely based on the story of the Supremes. Then a new TV show about black women and marriage. Mara Brock Akil says there's a powerful conversation to have about that topic, and she says TV is a powerful way for her to lead it. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.