Posts Tagged ‘BET’

Being Mara Brock Akil

June 26, 2013
Mara talking about what it takes to be a creative warrior.

Mara talking about what it takes to be a creative warrior.

Earlier this month, I attended the New York screening of Being Mary Jane, the latest project from accomplished show creator, screenwriter and producer Mara Brock Akil. You may know her name from the credits of the shows she created: Girlfriends, now a cult classic and a history-making show that ran for 8 seasons; and The Game, another history-making series that garnered 7.7 million viewers on its premiere night when it was reborn on BET—the most viewers for a sitcom premiere in cable history. She also wrote the remake of Sparkle, where Mike Epps delivered his breakout dramatic performance, and was sadly the last film role for the late Whitney Houston.

With the woman behind the film and dramatic series.

With the woman behind the film and dramatic series.

I held on to this piece because I needed time to process everything she shared during the talkback interview she conducted with another Mara, news anchor Mara Schiavocampo. Brock Akil’s remarks were so rich and at times so raw and emotional. Totally understandable given that she has lived with the Mary Jane character since her days of executive producing Girlfriends. To finally have that vision realized and experienced by audiences is clearly moving her deeply. I also waited to pen and post because she was really adamant about leaving those in attendance with the directive to get viewers: “from a production value standpoint, this kind of creativity is expensive. If you want to see more of this [kind of work on TV], you have to show up on premiere night—and not watch on your phone later.” So mark your calendars now to VIEW LIVE—not just DVR the film when it premieres on BET on Tuesday, July 2 at 10:30pm EST, right after the return of her other series, The Game.

Yeah…let that marinate for a sec.

A Black woman show creator/writer/producer has two programs premiering back to back on July 2.

She and Shonda Rimes are the only two African American woman writer/EPs with more than one show on at a time on any network. Brock Akil credited her telecast partner and its Chairman & CEO, Debra Lee on that night. “After we got 7.7 million viewers with The Game, my phone was ringing off the hook with people asking, ‘how’d you do it?’ We did it because BET believed. It goes back to marketing dollars; after 8 years of Girlfriends and 3 years of The Game on the CW, those shows got no marketing campaigns,” she recalled. “I was offering to run off my own fliers to pass out at clubs.”

Marketing matters. And when done well, it works. BMJ goodies on display.

Marketing matters. And when done well, it works. BMJ goodies on display.

It was also at BET that she got what she calls her “dream meeting”: the meeting that she noted “all the white boys get where the executives ask you what your passion project is.”

Brock Akil took that meeting with Original Programming President Loretha Jones, and when asked, Brock Akil’s answer was Being Mary Jane. No network is perfect, but what Brock Akil revealed with this information was how important it is for networks by and about people of color to exist—and thrive. In a Hollywood where she’d had two proven sitcom hits and even sold a screenplay, it was only a network that reflected her identity and understood her vision that presented her with the opportunity routinely afforded her white male counterparts. In this meeting, there was no “Negro 101” to wade through to determine whether the concept was viable or sellable with this network. They got it. And all any creative wants is to be gotten, so the audiences they serve can be seen, heard, known in all their complexity.

Brock Akil connects with author and mental health advocate Terrie Williams at the screening.

Brock Akil connects with author and mental health advocate Terrie Williams at the screening.

“I want to say that Black women and families are HUMAN with Being Mary Jane,” Brock Akil said. “I just want someone to fight for us; to fight for Black women.” Brock Akil is fighting the good fight. With this film, she packs a mean combination. Mary Jane Paul is both hero and nemesis; at work and in love, she alternates between saving the day and getting in her own way. Mary Jane adores her family, but like all of us, can’t stand some of the choices they make or ways they behave. Dynamic roles like these rarely come to women of color, and are written by them even less often. The result is usually some fragmented hologram of a “sista” with canned, tired dialogue, or a character that we only see in one context/environment because her character is peripheral, or a completely stereotypical caricature emerges.

Thankfully, none of the aforementioned can be found in this film. Gabrielle Union is perfectly cast as the woman who has to be “on” at all times in the world, but in her private moments, nothing clicks the way she wants it to. The dialogue is strong, snarky, and decidedly grown; no over-the-top attempts at hipness here. While honest exchange and deep reflection drive this drama, it definitely has moments that are shocking and funny. Thanks to laser-like scripting and nuanced acting from Lisa Vidal, Omari Hardwick, Stephen Bishop and Robinne Lee, there are several standout scenes. Won’t spoil them here. I will say that the ending is completely unexpected and sets things up well for the 2014 premiere of its spinoff series.

Toward the end of the Q&A, Mara went beyond being personable and got intimate. I was intrigued by her answers for how she manages to having a husband, family, and birthing her creative babies. Many of my readers know that in my book I asserted that work-life balance is a myth—long before women were being asked to lean in or lean out. What we need to strive for is work-life function, so we can be fully present in all of life’s moments, without being guilt-riddled or distracted from the business at hand; without compromising on self-care. Brock Akil affirmed my assertion during her talkback session with some incredible comments. She dropped a few jaws with these gems:

Speaking about her husband, Being Mary Jane director Salim Akil:

“I am very fortunate that I get to do what I love with whom I love. It’s also how we manage to see each other (laughs).”

“I have a lot of sex. Because sometimes, you think you need a massage, when really, all you needed was some…you know.”

“Black women need and deserve to be cherished; that is the role of a man.”

On drawing the line for family time:

“On the weekends, I am a mother.”

Hold it–before you go side-eyeing about how she’s only there for her kids two days a week: I take this to mean that she is a mother all the time, but that her work cannot intrude on that role during weekends. Mara Brock Akil is not ‘bout that Always At Work life. She actually does take time off from work each week. She relayed an anecdote about concerning a neighbor as she had a prolonged business conversation from her cell in her driveway, because she literally didn’t want to bring it to the threshold of her home. These boundaries matter, and if you want to be married to something other than a career, or want to raise a human being, the boundaries must be set, even if they change as you grow.

Gabrielle is gorgeous, as usual. Watch it on premiere night...for Mara!

Gabrielle is gorgeous, as usual. Watch it on premiere night…for Mara!

Here’s the takeaway: on BET next Tuesday, July 2nd at 10:30 EST, you have the opportunity to be highly entertained while you make a dream come alive for brilliant, fabulous and hardworking woman. Her dream is actually to create for a vision of Black women who are more fully realized onscreen, without making one Black woman the model for all of us. By taking that opportunity, you make that dream real in a world that has us all pegged. While it may not be a dream you share, this is absolutely a dream worth putting first.

Your feedback is welcome in the comments below or on Twitter directly to me here. Are you a fan of Mara? Are you excited about Being Mary Jane? Talk to me.

Follow Mara Brock Akil here.

Sister Swan: Erica Hubbard, Actor and Mentor

March 31, 2011

Hubbard: Making moves on and off screen.

You may have gotten to know Erica’s work from teen dance flick Save The Last Dance, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or the ABC Family hit Lincoln Heights, where she stars as Cassie Sutton. Ms. Hubbard transitioned seamlessly from drama to comedy on Let’s Stay Together, the first original scripted sitcom undertaken by BET. Her character Kita may be sexy, single and a tad bit country, but don’t sleep on the actor in the role. She’s globetrotting and giving back with her own non-profit which supports urban youth with scholarships—with zero interest in taking degrading gigs. I’m always happy to find a successful woman who shares my ‘No Kneepads’ mantra. Re-introducing…Ms. Erica Hubbard.

Let’s Stay Together is a hit! How has your career been affected since its premiere?

I am so happy and humbled to work with BET on Let’s Stay Together because it is one of the very few projects on air that has a positive message about love and sticking together in a relationship.  Since the launch of Let’s Stay Together and portraying Kita Whitmore, I have had influx of viewers contact me via Facebook and Twitter saying how much they like the premise of the show.  Also, I have been contacted by producers and directors who want me to take a look at their projects from being on both TV Shows: Let’s Stay Together as well as Lincoln Heights.

What book(s) are you reading right now?

Currently, I am reading the book Super Rich: A Guide To Having It All by Russell Simmons.

Share something you do for work that’s harder than it looks.

Gaining and losing weight for different roles I portray.  Cassie Sutton on Lincoln Heights body frame is totally different from Kita Whitmore on Let’s Stay Together. Most of my characters I portray have a different cadence, body movements and personality.

Describe a moment of sweet vindication.

I went in for this one casting director who booked me on a TV show as a vixen, but wouldn’t see me as a homeless teen because she believed I couldn’t play to totally opposite characters.  To make a long story short, her assistant gave me a chance and brought me in. The producers and director loved my delivery. I ended up getting the job.  I was so glad to prove to the casting director that you can never underestimate the talent of someone who believes in their worth!

What’s the most dangerous aspect of these industry waters you navigate?

Not compromising myself in playing a role I know that is morally indecent.  Some viewers watching our work are impressionable, and sometimes I have to pass on a big budget project or turn down an opportunity working with an A-list star if the role is degrading.

Name two places you call home.

The two places I call home is the City of Chicago and Church!

Who are your influences?

My major influences are a lot of philanthropists who care about the community! I am the Executive Director of my non-profit- The Erica Hubbard Foundation. I truly believe that it is vital to give back to your community.  The people who I look up to care tremendously about social justice, health issues, and human equality.  If I were to provide you with a list my influences would include but would not be limited to people like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa.

We all need creative stimulation to be successful. What is your favorite creative outlet or inspiration, what I call “creative food”?

I think it is vital to be creatively stimulated in order to be successful. Whether you paint, write poetry, act, sing, dance, or play an instrument, it’s important to have a positive creative outlet. Personally, my favorite creative outlet is to perform in a stage play. Recently, I was nominated for a NAACP Theater Award for the theater project called “What Would Jesus Do.”  It was so rewarding and also fulfilling to express myself in front of a live audience!

What is your guilty pleasure?

My guilty pleasure is traveling around the world.  Recently, I visited the Island of Moorea in Tahiti Island. I love to experience and witness how different cultures live and operate daily in their societies. Traveling the world most definitely broadens your horizons on so many levels.

What projects do you have lined up for the future?

I am reading some feature film projects now that I am considering.  Also, I have my own production company and we are reviewing material to produce. In the meantime, I am enjoying portraying Kita on Let’s Stay Together, and working with The Erica Hubbard Foundation.

For more information on Erica’s non-profit, visit http://www.theericahubbardfoundation.org. The finale of Let’s Stay Together premieres Tuesday, April 5th on BET. Check local listings for airtimes.

Get Ahead In Business Without Giving It-ON HELLO Beautiful April 20, 2009

April 20, 2009

putyourdreamsfirst_finalmshakaauthor1_color10Thembisa Mshaka, as a creative executive at Sony Music, helped launch the careers of Beyoncé and 50 Cent. Now an executive at BET, Mshaka has gathered her experience and those of almost 100 other women in the entertainment business in her new book, “Put Your Dreams First,” available as a FREE DOWNLOAD until April 22, 2009 exclusively on HelloBeautiful. The book is an instant mentorship in all aspects of the business: Movies. Music. Radio & TV. New Media. Advertising & Publicity. Style & Design. Management & Representation.

We sat down with Mshaka recently to discuss how she turned the idea of this book into reality, and got some juicy details on how she got Vanessa Williams to write the forward for “Put Your Dreams First.”

What was your inspiration for the book?

There was really no one incident, more like a recurring series of the same incident in different settings. At the magazine where I was an editor, I was the only Black female to ever hold the position, and was appointed to it at the age of 21. I would moderate panels and be the only female on the dais. I would participate in panels and be the only woman of color who worked in entertainment.

At the end of many panels and events, women of all ages and backgrounds would literally bum-rush the table and ask me to mentor them, or help them with a specific situation, or ask me how I got started. I kept in touch with some, but inevitably I could not give them the mentorship they deserved. Which got me to thinking: What if I created “mentorship in a bottle” for these women, and anyone else who wanted the real story on the business? The idea lit me up, and I started researching to create what would become “Put Your Dreams First.”

What’s the most important thing you want women to come away with from this book?

Can I be honest at the risk of being a bit crude? The one thing I want women to get from “Put Your Dreams First” is that you do not need to get ahead by giving head. Unless you’re a soccer player, put away your knee pads! There are many more successful women in the business than they realize who got there with their clothes on and their integrity intact. I say this not to judge those who may not have; I believe God is the only and final judge. I believe even these women may need that affirmation so they can work in the business with dignity. If this book can give them that, I’ve accomplished my goal.

I’ve been in this industry for 17 years, and am disheartened by the predominant representation of women in our business as eye candy, gold diggers, human accessories in videos. Sure these women exist. These archetypes predate the entertainment industry as we know it. And they aren’t going anywhere. But that said, it’s 2009, and the time for balanced representation has come. We are finally at a point where the prospect of equal pay for equal work can become a legislative reality.

What was the most interesting interview you conducted and why?

If I had to choose standouts, I would mention Tina Davis, who speaks in detail about becoming a heavyweight in the A&R field and developing stars, including her own client, Chris Brown; Mo’Nique, who spoke about how to fire a manager; Lisa Cortes, who shared her triumphant story of rising from a painful lawsuit to become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after film producers; Cathy Hughes, who talked about why she refused to choose between her son and her education; and Tylibah, an emerging lyricist and self-published poet who refused to sleep with prominent men in the music world in exchange for opportunities. All of these women are courageous and inspiring.

What was the most surprising finding you encountered in your research and interviews?

That 80% of my respondents cited the absence of mentorship as the greatest barrier to their advancement in entertainment. As someone who had the benefit of multiple mentors, I realized how blessed I was to have those sounding boards and pillars of support.

How did you get Vanessa Williams to write the foreword?

This is a GREAT story. Vanessa and I are both clients of a wonderful salon called the J Sisters in New York City. Jane, one of the founders, was talking with me during a service. I lamented that I had a very strong short list of women for my foreword, but that I felt like it would be no easy task to secure one of them. I explained to her that this woman would have to have been successful across many areas of the business: music, film, television, stage, fashion, radio, or some combination of at least three. So you can imagine the list: Vanessa Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Nona Hendryx, Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna.

Jane says, “Vanessa! She’s the one. She’s a client here too. I will call you the next time she’s here for her manicure, pedicure and hair appointment. You MUST rush over as soon as I call, okay?! I agreed, with my heart doing backflips inside. Vanessa was truly my first choice, especially because of what she endured to maintain her career post-Miss America. One day, Jane called. I rushed over. And sure enough, Vanessa was a captive audience of one soaking her feet and unable to move. So I spoke to her about the project (it helped that I had interviewed Lisa Cortes, whom she knew form her days as an artist with Wing/Mercury Records). She loved the idea and asked me to send her a few chapters to read while she was on the set of “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” She literally read them all from her Blackberry “from a cornfield in Tennessee” as she put it in an email. And within a couple weeks, I had an email containing her foreword, written 100% by her. Vanessa Williams is a woman’s woman; the real deal. Gorgeous inside and out. She didn’t have to even talk to me at the salon, let alone contribute the foreword. But she understood my mission. I am forever grateful to her for lending her name and part of her story to the book. I cannot wait to read to her memoir, which she’s working on now.

How do you balance your own career and personal life?

I don’t. I can no more balance the personal and career aspects of my life than I can divide them. They are inexplicably tied to one another, because I only have one life. So I choose to make my one life work. Teetering on the verge of falling between extremes is not living; that’s what I think of when I hear work-life balance. I strive for work-life function so I can be fully present in the moment as often as possible. I involve my very crucial village of family and friends when I need to, and take care of myself with solo vacations and spa days. Women should not be made to feel guilty for wanting careers, families, and relationships.

Have you ever had to deal with sexual harassment? Pay inequity? Bigotry?

Yes, yes, and yes. But you’ll have to read the book for the details.

What was the hardest lesson you ever learned in your career?

Actually, two tie for first place: That crying while on duty is a no-no, and that incompetent men fail up entirely too often to the detriment of very capable women.

This book in an amazing assembly of a virtual mentorship dream team. Who were your mentors?

It is important to have at least one for every major life transition you make. I am blessed to have had many. First and foremost, my mother, Fulani Mshaka, who I lost to cancer in October of 2007. The book is dedicated to her; she fed my love of words with books and movies. She was a social worker and therapist, my model for the importance of service to others in need. When I moved to Oakland, artist developer and beauty consultant Kelly Armstrong, who was a role model of success in the Bay Area entertainment scene took me under her wing. I met author Terrie M. Williams, at a Learning Annex event in San Francisco. When I moved to New York, I contacted her and she always made time to set me straight or invite me to events where I could learn and network. Industry giants Sharon Heyward and Dyana Williams have been a great source of wisdom for me. SO much so, that I included them both in the book. Last but not least I have to acknowledge Johnnie Walker, whose leadership through NABFEME has been invaluable. Remember: you don’t have to talk to mentors every day for them to serve in that capacity; you can be mentored by their actions and their legacies as well.