Hollywood's Undercover Hitmakers: Salim and Mara Brock Akil

 Joe Pugliese

This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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.

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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 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 most recent 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 (Fame), 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.

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Mara knew something about writing strong female characters. Girlfriends had run for eight seasons, first on UPN and then The CW, ending in 2008. That was an achievement in itself -- but she triumphed with the spinoff The Game, which ran for three ratings-challenged seasons on The 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 1.8 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."

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