You may not recognize her name, but you certainly would recognize the shows helmed by Mara Brock Akil, among the most successful and talented writer-producers in contemporary television.
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Most will know many of her biggest shows, considered groundbreaking in their own right: UPN’s Girlfriends and BET’s The Game and Being Mary Jane help set the standard by which many of today’s comedies and dramas featuring people of color are measured against. The shows have done more than just draw viewers; they’ve also showcased complex and interesting characters from a unique perspective not often seen on television.
“Because there’s a Mara Brock Akil, Shonda Rhimes is able to do what she does; Issa Rae is able to do what she does,” NPR television critic Eric Deggans said. “Today’s black showrunners have been able to come up and showcase their vision because trailblazers like Mara went out and created shows that people now remember quite fondly.”
The Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism graduate began her TV production career as an assistant writer on such 1990s drama series as South Central and Moesha, before branching out on her own to create comedy series Girlfriends in 2000. The series, which ran on UPN before moving to The CW, depicted the relationships, lives and careers of four young African-American women from a perspective that had never been seen before on the small screen.
Akil, 48, would then create Girlfriends spinoff The Game, which launched on The CW but found its greatest success on cable. When the football-themed comedy series was canceled after three seasons, BET picked it up with the hopes that it would appeal to its African-American target audience.
BET launched The Game in 2011 and set a cable ratings record for a comedy series when it drew 7.7 million viewers. Former BET chairman and CEO Debra Lee told Multichannel News in 2018 that the premiere of The Game was one of the biggest highlights of her network tenure. “On The CW [The Game] had been averaging about 1.5 million viewers per episode … we brought it back with the same writers and production crew and that night it got 7.7 million viewers,” she said. “I remember that day; it was like winning the Super Bowl.”
Akil and BET would strike gold again in 2013 with the debut of Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union as a successful cable news anchor juggling career, relationships and family issues.
Currently a producer on The CW’s Black Lightning, Akil continues to build upon an impressive portfolio of original scripted series, movies and other projects that shine a light on an underserved but important segment of the television audience.
“She’s somebody that’s crafted shows that black people have embraced from Girlfriends to Being Mary Jane,” Deggans said. “There’s a sense that she’s been able to create shows that black women look at and say ‘I see myself in that show,’ and it makes them want to watch it.”