Hollywood's Undercover Hitmakers: Salim and Mara Brock Akil
They're black, Muslim and gorgeous in an industry not known for its diverse embrace. Yet the husband and wife have made one Hollywood winner after another, and now have Whitney Houston's final film, "Sparkle," as their biggest bet yet.
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?"