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October 3, 2012

Who's the Boss?

Do you dream of being in charge? Here, three power players reveal how they beat the odds, defied their naysayers, and ended up calling the shots.

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mara brock akil

Photo Credit: Emily Shur

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Mara Brock Akil Executive producer, The Game

Tall and impeccably dressed with model good looks, Mara Brock Akil could easily pass for just another one of Hollywood's pretty people were it not for the fact that she is a somebody in these parts. A prolific producer and writer, she's the woman behind some of the most popular shows on television: Moesha, Girlfriends, The Game. Never seen them? That's no surprise to Brock Akil. Like Tyler Perry, whose enormous box-office and ratings clout went unreported in the mainstream press for years because his work catered largely to black audiences, Brock Akil, 42, is also one of Hollywood's most underrated talents. Not that she's bitter. Far from it. "There are so many untold stories that I get to take a swing at and try to articulate," she says. "I'm proud to be in the position to help broaden the discussion of who we are."

Raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Brock Akil attended Northwestern University with plans to pursue a career in advertising. "It was a very glamorous career that was going to afford me the apartment I wanted in Chicago, the clothes, the car — but something in my spirit told me don't [do it]," she recalls. Instead, she applied for a screenwriting fellowship in Los Angeles, and when she didn't get it, folded shirts at the Gap rather than pursue a career that didn't interest her. "A staple of my personality," she says, "is that I want what I want — and I'm willing to do without until I get it."

By 1994, she landed a staff writer gig with Fox's South Central, then with Moesha, where she was soon promoted to producer. Her goal: to give black women, largely absent on TV, a voice on a hit sitcom. Brock Akil threw herself into the job, pulling late nights, working weekends. But the grueling pace left her unsatisfied. "I looked around the writers room [and realized] all the men were married with families and all the women were single — it scared the shit out of me," she says.

At the time, she was seeing TV writer Salim Akil, then working on Moesha. Her boss, executive producer Sara Finney, told her, "If this guy is important to you, you have to figure out how to make time for this relationship." The advice inspired her to get serious about their status. The pair married in 1999 and now have two sons, ages 8 and 3.

Brock Akil was barely 30 when, in 2000, she pitched Girlfriends, an African-American version of Sex and the City, which was picked up by the CW. The series struck a chord with viewers and quickly went on to become one of the highest-rated shows among black audiences. It ran for eight seasons — the longest-running "black sitcom," second only to The Cosby Show.

Girlfriends spawned The Game, a spin-off comedy about girlfriends of professional ballplayers, which debuted on the CW in 2006. The show lasted just three seasons before getting cancelled. Thousands of viewers protested, demanding the show's return. Then the unheard of happened: BET resurrected The Game last year. The ratings were massive: 7.7 million viewers tuned in, crowning it the most-watched sitcom in ad-supported cable history.

The Akils cowrote her latest project, Sparkle, a remake of the 1976 cult film inspired by The Supremes. It was also Whitney Houston's final film. Brock Akil remembers how thrilled Houston was that the name of her church, New Hope Baptist, appeared in the script. "I told her I had made it up," she says. "That's when we both knew this project felt like destiny."

Brock Akil and her husband are frequent collaborators, even operating their own production company. Although few marriage therapists would suggest going into business with a spouse (let alone in as cutthroat an industry as television), Brock Akil says it works because they both share the same sensibilities. She also gets the final word on creative differences. "Sometimes we would have a debate in front of the writers [of The Game], and they would be like, 'Oh, my God, this is so uncomfortable — like mommy and daddy fighting,'" she says. "But the buck stops with me."

Though she's a well-regarded heavy hitter in a town rife with them, Brock Akil knows she's got miles to go before Hollywood diversifies its largely white casts. "I used to say to fellow showrunners, 'If you fill your staffs with different-looking people, your characters will be more interesting, even if they remain white.'"

This is one reason she says she'd like to run a studio one day. "I want to create more great television," she says. "I want to nurture and introduce other great talent." She stops for a moment, reflecting on her rise from the Gap to Hollywood. "I'm very thankful. Right now I could be living a very different life in Chicago. And I love my life the way that it is." — Laurie Sandell

CAREER ADVICE FROM MARA BROCK AKIL

1 DON'T COMPROMISE ON YOUR PASSION. It's one thing to be bored by your work. It's quite another to have no interest in it. Brock Akil ditched a career in advertising to pursue screenwriting, even working at the Gap to get by until she scored the job she wanted. "A staple of my personality is that I want what I want — and I'm willing to do without until I get it," she says.

2 IF IT'S IMPORTANT TO YOU, MAKE TIME FOR IT. Long hours and weekends spent working on Moesha left Brock Akil feeling lonely. "I looked around the writers room [and realized] all the men were married with families and all the women were single," she says. At the advice of her boss, Brock Akil realized she needed to devote more time to her personal relationships.

3 BUSINESS IS BUSINESS — EVEN WHEN WORKING WITH FRIENDS OR FAMILY. Brock Akil and her husband cowrite scripts for The Game. Although they usually share the same vision, differences occasionally arise. But, she says, "the buck stops with me."


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