And The Hits Keep Coming
They're black, Muslim and gorgeous in an industry not known for its diverse embrace. Yet husband and wife Salim and Mara Brock Akil have made one Hollywood winner after another, and now have Whitney Houston's final film, "Sparkle," as their biggest bet yet.
When Mara Brock Akil was a girl of 11, IN November 1981, she saw a copy of Seventeen with Whitney Houston on the cover. The future pop icon wasn't known as a singer then but as a teen model -- one of the first African Americans to grace the magazine's cover. The image made a huge impression on young Mara, then growing up in Kansas City, Mo. "It was like -- things are possible," she says.
For Mara -- smart, talented and hardworking -- many things indeed have been possible. Some 30 years later, she met Houston at a table read for the upcoming Sony Pictures film Sparkle (opening Aug. 17), which the now 42-year-old Mara had written, her first screenplay. Her husband, Salim, 48, was directing. The two are one of those industry couples who work and succeed in partnership. And their success is stunning: Mara is an accomplished showrunner with two hit shows, the sitcom Girlfriends and the spinoff The Game, under her belt. Salim is a veteran television director-producer whose feature debut, 2011's Jumping the Broom, made its budget back six times over. Together, they are among the most successful African Americans working in Hollywood. And Sparkle, starring Houston and season six American Idol winner Jordin Sparks in her film debut, is their first joint incursion into the movie world.
So when it came time for the table read, "I was excited for all the obvious reasons -- to finally hear your script in the voices that were cast," Mara recalls. "But here was Whitney Houston, who was the soundtrack of my life. And she had been an inspiration to me when she was on the cover of Seventeen. ... I wanted everybody to love the script, but I particularly wanted her to like it."
Houston did like the script -- but she would never get to see the finished film: The iconic singer died of a drug-related drowning on Feb. 11, after the film had wrapped. Her death was devastating to the Akils, who recall that Houston seemed free of demons on the set. "I'm not saying I was oblivious to who Whitney Houston was," Salim says. "I grew up around people with a bunch of serious problems. Shit -- I got a lot of serious problems. But I went into it expecting that anyone standing in front of me is ready to work. When Whitney stepped on the set, all I saw was a wonderful actress."
Sparkle was long a passion project for Houston, whose last movie role had been in The Preacher's Wife, more than 15 years earlier. This version is a remake of the 1976 Supremes-inspired original about a girl group that falls apart when one member turns to drugs and another becomes a solo star. Written by Joel Schumacher and Howard Rosenman and starring Irene Cara, the original film had been such a cult favorite in the African American community that Salim had hesitated to take on a remake. But when he did, he insisted that his wife be the person to write the script.
Mara knew something about writing strong female characters. Girlfriends had run for eight seasons, ending in 2008, first on UPN and then The CW. That was an achievement in itself -- but she triumphed with the spinoff The Game, which ran for three ratings-challenged seasons on CW before the plug was pulled in May 2009. After the show about football players and their significant others lay dormant for more than a year, BET programming chief Loretha Jones shrewdly revived it. In January 2010, The Game 2.0 premiered to a record-breaking 7.7 million viewers, the highest basic cable sitcom premiere at that time, and it averaged a 1.79 rating in its fifth season.
When Mara was executive producer of Girlfriends, she pleaded with her husband to direct some episodes. Salim, who had been a director and eventually executive producer on Showtime's Soul Food, reluctantly agreed, only to become a regular director of his wife's shows. Now, he knew she was the right person to write Sparkle, and when Houston met Mara, the pop icon seemed to feel that, too. "She kept calling me her angel," Mara says. But Mara was baffled when Houston said to her, "I really appreciate your putting my church in your script."
"I didn't put your church in my script," Mara told her.
"New Hope Baptist," Houston prompted. Mara had unwittingly given the church in Sparkle the same name as the church in Newark, N.J., where Houston had started to make her indelible mark, singing gospel as a young girl. (The same church hosted Houston's funeral service.)
"I believe in divine order all the time," Mara says. (She and Salim are Muslim.) "But this particular time, I really felt the presence of God all the way through. It was like it was meant to be."
Mara and Salim came to the industry, and came together, from widely divergent paths. Mara was a daughter of privilege raised by her single mother, a district sales manager for an IT firm. "I was born knowing I had to go to college," she says. She graduated from Northwestern and got a job as a production assistant on Fox's short-lived 1993 sitcom The Sinbad Show.
Mara knew the Sinbad showrunners, Ralph Farquhar and Michael Weithorn, had a pilot, South Central, at Fox, and her aim was to write for that show. "The first thing I did was to do my job very well," she says. On days when Mara was answering the phones, she made sure people saw her working on scripts. "Ralph would say, 'What are you writing?' and I would say, 'A script that I want you to read,' " she says.
Finally she asked Farquhar and Weithorn for a few minutes of their time. Farquhar replied that she could have just one. Mara spoke up: "Let me not waste it on why I need you. That's obvious," she said. "Let me spend it on why you need me." (She would later write those words for Sparkle, the title character of the movie.) South Central focused on a family headed by a single mother, and Mara knew something about that, she told Farquhar. She was rewarded with a position as a writing trainee on the short-lived show.
After Mara endured a "horrible" 18 months of unemployment, Farquhar made her a staff writer on the sitcom Moesha, which became the biggest hit on the fledgling UPN after it premiered in 1996. While working there, she met and married Salim. Having vowed never to get involved with a man with kids, Mara fell for a man who had two.
Salim had fathered his first child when he was a child himself, at the age of 13. He had grown up in Richmond, Calif., which still ranks among the country's most dangerous cities. "You couldn't pull up to a stoplight without people running up trying to sell you crack," Salim says. "My friends were dying at a fast pace, or going to prison."
Salim credits his mother with saving him, though her ambitions for him were not great. "She was very clear about the man she wanted me to be -- someone who had a good job at UPS or a Chevron, or you drove a bus," he says. But even when he was very small, she indulged his passionate love of entertainment. "I would watch The Honeymooners late at night," he says. "She encouraged my imagination, encouraged me to be an individual, demanded that I be a man."
But Salim doesn't want to talk about his childhood much, about being a father at such a young age, about the fact that his mother went to prison when he was a teen. He says he doesn't remember a lot about this period in his life and doesn't even know why she was incarcerated, attributing his haziness to post-traumatic stress. "It's like peeling back a scab," he says, "and I don't peel back scabs too much."
But Salim says his mother had arranged things so he could live on his own, and he kept going to classes, though he was not a great student. "It wasn't me trying to be a good kid," he says. "It was normalcy. You get up, you go to school, you come home, you fix dinner, you go to sleep." Salim's grades were good enough for him to graduate from high school. His mother, by then out of prison, was stunned.
The next day, he left for Los Angeles. "I thought I was an actor until they pointed the camera at me," he says. After floundering for years, selling shoes on Melrose Avenue, Salim made his way to Columbia College Hollywood. "It introduced me to the reality of what filmmaking was," he says. "I had no clue."
When he finished school, his mother, who was suffering from gangrene as a result of diabetes, asked him to return to Richmond. He complied, went to work at a mortuary and fathered another child. (Now a grandfather, Salim has a 35-year-old daughter and a 27-year-old son. He and Mara, who live in Hancock Park, have two children, ages 8 and 3.) Salim also connected with the Bay Area's filmmaking community, which led to a collaboration on a $25,000 feature, Drylongso. The movie, which dealt with gang violence in Oakland, played at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999.
By then, Salim had encountered Mara at her writing retreat: in those days, Insomnia Cafe on Beverly Boulevard. He was visiting when a friend asked him to come and check out a beautiful woman whom he had been watching day after day. Salim was the one who found the nerve to talk to her, but he didn't ask her out until he ran into her a year later, when he was back in Los Angeles finishing Drylongso. He invited Mara to dinner, and when their leisurely meal was over, he asked, "Can we cut the bullshit and get on about the business of living a life together?"
Mara went on the become supervising producer on The Jamie Foxx Show on the WB Network, where she started developing Girlfriends, inspired by her love of Sex and the City. Salim went to work on Showtime's Soul Food.
It's hard not to notice that both Salim and Mara have gotten their breaks in the business doing shows aimed at African American audiences. "Like anyone else in television, I like to explore my life experience," Salim says. "And I don't think African American artists see doing shows or art about African Americans as something 'less than.' I think maybe the industry sometimes does. We don't get as much attention, we don't get critical acclaim and so on. But as far as my perspective, it's a natural thing. And it doesn't limit me because all I'm really doing is telling American stories."
Mara agrees, though she is dismayed that the actresses in Girlfriends did not get the awards recognition that she feels they deserved. And while she believes that much of her success derives from the spice of a diverse writers' room, she gets annoyed that there is rarely a similar approach on shows that don't have predominantly black casts. Kenny Smith, who worked with Mara on The Jamie Foxx Show and is now an executive producer on The Game, says Mara relies on writers from different backgrounds and genders to create authentic emotional notes. And she doesn't worry about political correctness. "When we're developing stories in the room, she wants guys to be guys," he says. "And if it's sexist and ugly, she wants the women to respond as they actually would. It's like, 'Let's not sugar-coat this.' It's always courageous."
Mara is also aware that UPN launched Girlfriends -- and other shows revolving around African Americans -- because they were seen as cheap audience magnets. She says new networks like UPN or Fox, back then, "didn't believe you have to spend a lot of money to get [the audience] to come because we're so hungry to see ourselves that we'll just show up and find it. That is not the case, by the way." But Mara says the experience taught her to do a lot with a tight budget.
After CW bailed on The Game, reruns on BET outperformed first-run shows on CW. Before she took the top programming job at BET, Loretha Jones had taken note when The Game went off the air. "Somebody should do something about that," she thought. When she set up shop at BET, she did. It was an unusual deal: CBS, which formerly produced the show, still owns it, but BET finances it and oversees all aspects, from script to broadcast. For Mara, the move gave the show life, but once again, she had to do more with less: A source estimates that the budget, a little more than $1 million an episode at CW, shrank by about 30 percent. But Mara became a network star: Her hourlong drama, Being Mary Jane, will premiere on BET next year -- with a pilot directed by Salim.
Salim first met with Houston about Sparkle at the Akils' loft office in Venice. The singer talked about her hopes that the remake would inspire girls in the same way the original had inspired her. "If you ever get nervous or you feel that things aren't going the way you would like, get on my back and I'll carry you," Salim told her.
The Akils say Houston was joyous and generous on the set. Her death came as a shock. "It was very painful when she left us," Salim says. "It brought up a lot of older issues and feelings with me, about my friends and having come up the way I did. But I would hate for people to concentrate on that aspect of who she was."
After Houston died, sources say executives at Sony Pictures swooped down on the film, handing Salim reams of notes, some of which even came from studio chairman Michael Lynton's wife, Jamie. (Lynton had taken a great personal interest in the film, negotiating to buy the remake rights from Warner Bros.) "This was a nice, small, fun movie until Whitney died, and then it was crazy," says a source with ties to the project. Salim had a cut that he was happy with, but the studio dictated certain changes. When asked about it, Salim chooses his words carefully. "I am happy with it," he says. "There's always the director's cut and the cut. ... I think the wonderful thing about the process is that my voice was heard. Michael Lynton was generous with his time when I wanted to talk something out."
In the end, Salim says, "We came to a happy conclusion. ... So we'll see what the people think. I think Whitney would be very happy."