Tracy is joined by Girlfriends creator, Mara Brock Akil to chat about betting on yourself. Mara also shares the moment she was ready to risk it all for a chance at earning it all.
Going Through It S2 E11 Mara Brock Akil Transcript
Tracy Clayton: This is Going Through It, a show about women who've found themselves in situations where they said, child, you know what? Uh-uh. And they made a decision to make a change and turn something around. I'm your host, Tracy Clayton.
Mara Brock Akil: Girlfriends was really simple for me. I just wanted to document our existence.
Tracy: That's my Mara Brock Akil. Mara is a screenwriter showrunner, she's a producer. And she's also responsible for what quite possibly may be the most important television show of my entire life, Girlfriends. No big deal.
Tracy: All right. All right. I'm lying. You got me. It is the biggest deal possibly in the world. Girlfriends was a staple show for myself in so many other Black women, including a lot of my personal friends. It was one of the first times I can remember seeing Black women represented on TV as I knew them.
Mara: It was this idea of Girlfriends, the chosen family was important to me. And at the time, Sex and the City was the hot show and I wanted to be in the conversation. I wanted our tone, our texture, our vibe, our look, our concerns, our everything at the table. And it was clear to me that they didn't want us in the conversation. And instead of being upset about it, I just went and created my own show.
Tracy: So Mara had already been producing TV shows for a young, thriving network that you may remember called UPN, which was home of Moesha, The Parkers, Homeboys in Outerspace. All of Us, One on One, Half and Half. It was so Black and it was so, so needed.
Mara: And they were having some success there and they wanted a companion piece. And so this is what I pitched them. I was pitching to a white guy who I knew had interest in all ladies, including Black women. And I said, Oh, and I'll tell you all the secrets to the Black women. And what was funny was my biggest secret was, we were human.
Tracy: Turns out the studio was super into it. They loved it. And she successfully sold Girlfriends but now she had to figure out how to sell herself. So Mara was somewhere in the middle of the production hierarchy, right, because she had never run her own show before. So what happened was the network brought in two showrunners and they made Mara the co-executive producer. And she was okay with that for the time being.
Mara: I didn't have that experience but I had the vision of Girlfriends. I was like, I love my show. I understand why I have to be supervised. My ego doesn't. But I do know why I have to be supervised. So let's join forces. Let's get this show on the air. Let's make it successful. And you guys are going to be the showrunners for the first two years. But in season three, I need to take over my show by title, by name, by everything.
Tracy: And before she knew it, bam! Girlfriends was one of the most successful shows on UPN's Black ass network. And things were looking great for Mara.
Mara: Here comes season three. I'm like, okay. It's time to get my show and title and money and everything. And I needed to have that and deserved it. So it was time to make that move. And then everybody was like, skrt skrt! I was like, What? I was like -- [laughs].
Tracy: Oh, shit.
Mara: I think this phrase that was said to me that really got my Black woman up was, If it ain't broke, why fix it? And I was like, but it's broke for me.
Tracy: The powers that be at the studio decided that giving Mara the title a showrunner was unnecessary. But it's like unnecessary for whomst? Mara was ready to risk everything to get what she knew she deserved.
Mara: I was feeling righteous, but I was also feeling scared because the only card you have to pool against power is your ability to walk away. Let me give you your dignity and your respect. But it may not move the line of fairness and a value not only for yourself, but for those who are behind you. And I think that's just one of the things I've learned to accept about being Black and being a woman is that what we do is not ever going to be just for yourself. And so I walked in there with faith -- knobby knees and faith, but I walked.
Tracy: Mara gathered her strength and her faith and her knobby knees. She focused her energy. She put her shoulders back and her head up and she walked right into that TV executive's office.
Mara: I will never forget that day. I remember how clammy and cold my hands were. I stumbled through the first part of it. I was not great. I remember thinking, I'm not doing well. And I closed my eyes for maybe about five seconds. He probably thought, What the hell is going on? And I literally prayed to God in that moment. I remember telling God, I am not doing well. You have to help me. You have to help me. [Music Out] And then I open my eyes up and I just said, Hey, listen, I don't understand why we're here. I've proven to you I'm under budget, the ratings are up. Why won't you sort of sign off on this? I don't understand this. But I will tell you, this show will not succeed without me. That I know.
Tracy: And you know what? It took a lot more than that one meeting. And if you've been in this situation before, I'm sure, you know, there was a lot of meetings, probably a lot of emails and a lot of waiting before the executives finally reckoned Mara's worth and finally gave her what she deserved. In the end, Mara became the official showrunner of Girlfriends. And with that came all the glory, all the praise, all the celebration -- [sighs] and the pressure.
Mara: You fight the fight. And it felt amazing. And then after five seconds, then you are like, Oh, shit. [laughs] Now you better back up all of it. Because they are all watching. Any false move, you think that's going to be the thing that takes you down. But I'm like Kobe in that way. Give me the ball. Give me the ball. I'd much rather be in fourth quarter with less than a second on the clock, you know. And I want to shoot. And that's what I did.
Tracy: You know, I didn't think it was possible for me to love Girlfriends even more than I already did. But this story definitely did it. And I could not wait to talk more about it with Mara. So get comfy. Grab a drink. Take off your coat. Stay a little while folks. This is Going Through It.
Tracy: This is amazing. Like I'm -- to sit and talk to a Black woman who has had this type of experience in the industry, like widescale. Like a lot of my friends are screenwriters, I pretended to be for like a month. And I was like, I don't know what I'm doing. And so then I switch to other stuff. [laughter] But it's amazing to hear the story of a woman who is just flourishing, who has had to do -- I -- what I think so many other Black women have had to do. Black women who work for white folks, which mostly everybody unfortunately works for white folks. But just like the idea of having to go up against this entity. Right. Like, yes, it's a company. Yes, it's a corporation. But it's also whiteness and maleness and racism and patriarchy. And like, how did you learn that you could even do that to, like, speak back to power? Does that make sense?
Mara: Yes, it does make sense.
Mara: Because I was raised to be a human being. And then I was entitled to my existence, my life. When I think back to my childhood, I was -- I grew up in Windsor Hills here in Los Angeles. It's, it's adjacent or considered a part of the Black Beverly Hills.
Mara: I was also born into the Nation of Islam in Compton. And then we moved up to the Windsor Hills area, which is, you know, middle-class Black people.
Mara: And I just was inundat -- so the first -- you have to understand the first nine years of my life, I'm surrounded by just beautiful reflections of who I am and myself. My existence of my humanity was A -- reflected in where I lived and who I was -- and how I was raised. And so that is in the core of us. Now, how I was able to hold on to that core is my spiritual practice. We have to work on our spiritual practice. And sometimes that comes through religion. That leads us. But I'm talking about that voice inside that you can hear.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yes.
Mara: [crosstalk] Like at the moment that I shared, I was able to hear myself. All the other stuff, the nervousness, the -- those are the layers of maybe who I think I should be or how I want to be. But really, who you are is in there.
Mara: I, I remind myself that, I have a contract with God. I'm here for a reason. I gotta get to it.
Mara: And so perhaps me having to deal with "the man" is just a part of my -- in my way in my industry, making way. So I'm very proud not only what I've done for myself but what I've been able to do for others and usher a lot of people through and keep them supported and keep them developing so that when they get their opportunity, they can keep blowing it up and keep the door open for others.
Tracy: And I think that really comes through in in your work, too. You know, like it feels very intentional. It feels very like, this is for everyone, but it's especially for you little Black girl in the back. You know what I mean?
Tracy: And I -- I know, well, I would imagine that that takes a lot of strength and perseverance. But what happens in, like, those quiet moments when, like, your inner hater comes out and is like, you know what? This whole little like show thing -- yes it is cute. But, you know, can you do it again? You know, like when the little hater starts up and --.
Mara: [crosstalk] Oh.
Tracy: Self doubt creeps in, what -- first of all, does that happen? I'm assuming it does, but -- [laughs]
Mara: [crosstalk] Oh, my God. The litter hater's all -- She's always there. She's a -- you know, she's a hot mess. But you know I have decided --
Tracy: [crosstalk] Even after all of your success?
Mara: Yes. Because you you you know, I, I have a high bar. I also like to win. But the little hater, I have learned to accept her. And listen to her, actually.
Tracy: [crosstalk] You listen to her. Why do you listen to her?
Mara: So you let her get in your head and use that fuel --.
Tracy: She's your motivation. [laughs]
Mara: Yes. Keeps your motivation. Do you know what I'm saying? You kinda -- so I've learned how to use her. And in some days when she's really out of sorts, I just take the day off.
Mara: I take the day off.
Tracy: I love that.
Mara: And, you know, she may beat me up or I may have to drink through it. But, you know -- [laughs].
Tracy: [laughs] I've been there.
Mara: I say that -- but then -- because I also know the other one is there. The one that you know, your friend that holds the purses and has all the sensible things to say. She's going to be there and she's gonna say, all right. Let's get back up. Let's put our feedback on the floor. And which I also want to say, please, please, please follow what you love to do, because even what you love to do is hard. And so that love at least can be the motivator to keep going, you know, when you do want to give up or you do want to listen to the hater. You know what I'm saying?
Tracy: Yeah. [Music In] So I have a friend, right? My friend's name is Stacy. Stacy is not me at all. You're looking at me like I it might be me.
Mara: In the writers room, they always say -- when they start with crits, they go I have this friend. [laughter] You're like, okay. Tell me -- just tell me, so I can put it in the script.
Tracy: [crosstalk] What have you done?
Mara: [laughs] Exactly.
Tracy: So Stacy also works in media. I mean, she does a little podcasting here and there, hosting some stuff. She's got a few substantial projects under her belt. But she's having some trouble translating that into you, knowing her worth and also how to demand it. Like, I don't know. I think as, as a Black -- Stacy, is also a Black woman. And so, you know, like I was -- [laughter] I mentioned earlier, like, that's not so much a thing that like we're taught. The first time I had to go into a white man's office and be like, listen, you can't treat me this way. I was like, well, I should just go and start looking for another job now. You know, because if I do or say anything out of line, that's it. It's over for me. But at the same time, Stacy sees you and so many other creators, Black women creators. And it's like, okay, so it's possible. Where is the disconnect for Stacy? Like, how does she demand her worth, I guess? Or learn how to do that?
Mara: Well, it's funny. Recently I, I needed to remind myself of that. And one of the things I did was I stopped. I think, Black women, we grind a lot not only for ourselves, but for others. And we can literally wear ourselves out where we lose the capacity to give voice for ourselves. We're used to running at high speeds on a treadmill if that makes sense.
Tracy: Ooh, yes.
Mara: And so I was like, I just needed to stop the treadmill. I needed to sit and think and be vulnerable. And I needed for me. I allowed myself to let go of all the plotting and planning and dreams, which I'm really good at. I just let them go. So I think for me recently I just had to stop. I went on a sabbatical. And now the sabbatical -- mine was pretty amazing. I went to Thailand for nearly a month. But a sabbatical can also be three days down the road or you know what I'm saying? It can be whatever is in your means and your budget. It can be literally go to the beach.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yeah.
Mara: The free public beach for the day, you know what I'm saying? And I think allowing ourselves just to get rid of the clutter.
Tracy: Mhmm, mhmm.
Mara: Letting the -- let all of the things you should be, should do, deserve, earn, whatever to get down to that moment. But who are you? So that you can make -- you can be clear about who you are and stake claim to it. So instead of begging or hoping or being in that place of wanting, you are in the place of you -- it's like the I am. It's, you are. So part of the work is holding onto the image of who you are and the Gertrudes in our life, the ones that are in our head and the literal ones that exist in other human beings, you have to move that away. When jealousy comes up. Someone's -- Stacy's friend or someone, her colleague gets something that she wants. Acknowledge that you're jealous. Why are you jealous? Oh, let me go back. And I don't want what they have. I will just -- I want what Stacy wants. And so let me then refine that conversation about what I want. So when you're in an opportunity to state, you won't be in the asking position, you will be stating it.
Tracy: Yeah. Yeah. Absolute -- you know what? Stacy is gonna be so excited to hear this. I can't wait to take it back to her.
Mara: I do want to make a point to say that what I learned from that journey is that even in the moment that I stood up and fought for myself and fought my own battle and all of that. What I realized is you also have to let it go. If you want to stay on the battlefield, you also have to let it go. And in fact, after I've proven that I was successful, I didn't hold on to the hurt. I didn't hold on to, well, they try -- tried to mess me over. It wasn't personal to them.
Mara: Meaning it wasn't broke and they didn't want to fix it. It really was that. They did not want to fix it. And they had a place of power to, to say that and thought that I was okay with that. But until I claimed my value, they had to meet me at my value and I was met at my value.
Tracy: Oooh. Did my therapist send you? [laughter] We had this very talk earlier today. [laughs] [Music In] Oh, this is right on time, though. Absolutely. So I want to share this story with you. My very first podcast was a show called Another Round. It was around for two years, I think. It was almost instantly like more popular than I thought it would have been. Like on the first day that it was released, it did really, really well. Due to some issues at the media company that we were making it at basically they didn't appreciate it, didn't want to fund it and they decided they were going to cut the podcast department. But like the -- one of the things that impacted me the most was like, how disappointed all the listeners were when we were like, hey, sorry. Due to situations beyond our control, there's not going to be another season, at least for a while. And I didn't understand why everybody was so like, upset. Like, some people were like, mad. Some people were just sad. I was feeling guilty. And I'm just like, I have to remember who I belong to, I belong to me. And it was a lot. Like the pressure of like, that sort of adoration was a lot. But somebody was like, do you remember how you felt when Girlfriends ended? That's how we feel.
Mara: [crosstalk] Wow.
Tracy: And I was like, Oh, my gosh. I understand. If somebody has said this to me like a year ago -- because we went through it for a while.
Tracy: Because I didn't understand them. You know, I didn't, I didn't see -- I didn't see myself the way that they saw me, I think is what it was. I say all that to say, what do you hope the legacy of Girlfriends is in particular and all of your projects and just your career in general?
Mara: I describe -- you know, I think I was able to crystallize this. I received a a Black Girls Rock Award. And I remember writing the, you know, panicking about writing my speech. And it crystallized. This is it, we -- our home is America, good or bad or other. We are here, you know, by slave ship. But we're here. This is our home. And imagine being a child and not seeing your picture on the wall. Or if your picture is on the wall, you got the red eyes or your distorted or you not -- you know, it doesn't represent who you are. [Music In] And that to me, is what Girlfriends began as I decide it will fuck it. You won't put my picture on the wall? I'm gonna put our pictures on the wall. So they to me our portraits. My work is about the portraits of humanity. My first muse and likely my forever muse will always be Black women. Girlfriends was pitched as you know, I said, it's a documentary, [laughs] it's. a documentary. Somebody's got to document that we were here and what we were thinking --.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yes.
Mara: And doing and wearing. And what we thought about dating, what we thought about sex, what we thought about career, what we thought about family. It was about -- it's painting portraits is what I do. And the human spirit needs validation. And it begins with -- in childhood. It extends to our family. Extends to when you raise your hand in class and you want the teacher to pick you, but they just don't ever seem to pick you. You -- it then extends to our media, be it books, magazines, theater, television, film. And you want to be seen. You want to be seen. It's a validation of your existence. If there is no witness to you, did -- were you here? -- In that human experience. So when you're seen, you are have an awareness that someone sees you.
Mara: You, the person, has to decide, How are you going to be in the world? What are you going to do with now that the spotlight is on you?
Mara: So I think perhaps what -- you were doing that. And that you created a space that was human and reflective and people were seen and heard. So consciously or subconsciously, I think what safe places or authentic programing is, be it a podcast or or television show or a movie or a film or a play or an article, is it makes you stand up to who you really are. You're having a -- inadvertently -- a conversation with yourself. You're making that person either be held a little bit because they've been wounded, they just need a little hug. But then after the hug, they may be inspired to go do something in their life, to go do what it is. It's just the witness helps us do that.
Tracy: I love that. And your work. Absolutely, absolutely does that. The portraiture, is that a word?
Mara: [crosstalk] Yes! Yes.
Tracy: [crosstalk] The portraiture that you have given us will -- let's see how how can I bring this metaphor home? The portraiture you have given this will hang in the halls of the Louver forever. [laughter] I tried. I did my best.
Mara: [crosstalk] Yes. Yes. Yes.
Tracy: I know so many amazing led women creatives. And you are just like at the top of all of their lists as far as inspiration. And it is my duty to thank you on behalf of all of us. And there's, there's a little personal tribute that I would like to present to you, if it's okay. [laughs]
Mara: Yes. Well, thank you. I enjoyed being here. Thank you so much.
Tracy: Yeah. So. So here's the tribute. We were making the show and we did this thing -- But basically we made an electronic mood board of such. And the theme song was basically a very cheap and strugglish rip off of that Girlfriends' theme. [laughter].
Mara: I love you seeing those.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Would you like to hear it?
Mara: I would love. I would love.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Okay, first you have to promise not to sue me.
Mara: Oh, no, no. I -- no.
Tracy: All right! I'm don't have any money anyway, so it'd be a waste of time.
Mara: Okay. [laughs]
Tracy: All right!
Tracy: [singing] My homegirls. There when things get rough.
Mara: Oh God.
Tracy: [singing] My homegirls --
Mara: Oh. [laughs].
Tracy: [singing] There through all my stuff. My homegirls.
Mara: I love it. [laughter].
Tracy: [singing] My --.
Mara: I love all the bad notes, because isn't that life? [laughter] But you just keep pushing through it. End with a flourish. [laughter].
Tracy: You gotta nail the dismount if nothing else. You gotta stick with it. [laughs]
Mara: Ooh! I love it. Come through, homegirls. Come through.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yes!
Mara: [crosstalk] I love it.
Tracy: Well, when you're ready to work on the pilot, you know where to reach us.
Mara: We got a theme song. Got a theme song.
Tracy: And with that musical interlude, I knew I had to tell my homegirls all about my conversation with Mara because she reminded me that sometimes through all of life's bad days, ups and downs and ins and outs, you just gotta keep pushing through. And you know why you gotta keep doing that? Because the flourish is worth it. Can I get a Amen? Come on, somebody. But the thing about that is asking for what you deserve is not always easy, especially when it comes to your career. Especially when you're a Black woman or if you're Black or if you're a woman or if you're not white, basically. So thanks to social distancing, I met up with my homegirls for a Zoom party to talk about the hardest parts of negotiating your value at work. I want some tips. How can we all be better negotiators, too?
Tracy: Well cheers everybody.
Tracy: Cheers to technology.
Tracy: So I feel like as Black women, everything is harder for us. Just like in general, in life. Especially negotiating because you have to know your worth for one, which is hard. And you have to convince white people to give you things, which is also hard. What's the hardest thing for y'all about negotiating like a raise or promotion of something at work?
Berry: For me, I feel like, like I almost have to give myself a pep talk and then [laughs] talk to my boss and that sort of thing. And he was open the things. It was more me asking for what I needed.
Tracy: What was the pep talk? Do you remember? What was it like?
Berry: So I'm like, oh, you know what? You know, you gotta boss up. You can do this. Like you talked to people crazy all the time. You can ask for what you want. [laughter] It's okay. Like, you don't just have to talk to people crazy. You can also ask for what you need.And that's mostly what I do. Like, if I'm about to do something or a phone call or I see myself going to a weaker place, I'll usually say something and somebody'll say something back. And I'm like, you're right. I need to boss up and just really say what this and not deal with my little girl voice or something. Like really be bold about what I'm about to do.
Tracy: Okay, life coach Berry, let me write that down. I feel like I have had to ask for raises and I've had to negotiate. And it was terrifying. Mostly because I did not have the confidence that I needed to ask for whatever it was, money or time off or whatever. And that I think is straight up, because I didn't know my worth.
Brittany: One thing is that the worst thing that somebody can tell you is, no. And It's like somebody telling, you no, it might be the end of negotiation on that specific aspect of whatever you're talking about. But it's not like a conversation ender. It's like in most cases, if you're like, hey, you know, can I get a raise? And someone's like, no. They're not like, yeah. By the way, also, you're fired for even asking that.
Tracy: And fuck you forever.
Brittany: Right. And also like maybe if that's what somebody does when you ask for a raise, which is a pretty normal thing to do, maybe like you should -- do not need to be working there.
Brittany: Like, maybe that's the thing. So I think like, it's not just like, hearing no is not really that bad at the end of the day. But it also just lets people know what you want. And then if you keep reminding people what you want, eventually you'll be in a position to get it. Whether it's from them or some other people altogether.
Tracy: Those are really good tips. Anybody else got some good tips?
Renee: Yeah. I always say to people, like what's the worst that will happen is no. But my tip would be, don't be grateful.
Renee: I'm not grateful any opportunity I receive because I believe I deserve it.
Tracy: Wow. Say more.
Renee: In, in the professional world we get caught up. I'm obsessed with -- I love Shonda Rhimes. Okay. So say, Shonda Rhimes approached me later this week and she is like, Renee, we wanna do that movie. I'd be like, oh my God. Like, that's amazing. And I'd be gassed by Shonda contacting me. But what should I remember, is that she's contacting me because she wants to work with me. So I have something to give.
Renee: So I'm not going to let the hype of my idol or comp -- brand that I'm obsessed with or admire make me lose the value of myself. So don't be grateful for the opportunity. Business is an exchange of goods. A service for money. So just don't be grateful for the opportunity.
Tracy: Wow. Wow.
Tracy: Y'all are smart.
Tracy: Thank you so much for tuning in once again. I am always so thrilled. Always more tickled than the last time. Is tickled a thing that people say outside the South? Please tweet me and let me know. Going Through It is an original series made in partnership with MailChimp and Pineapple Street Studios. Executive Producers for Going Through It are Jenna Weiss-Berman, Max Linsky and Agerenesh Ashagre. Shout out to the producers of Going Through It. Our lead producer is Josh Gwynn, production by Jess Jupiter, Janelle Anderson, Jess Hackel and Courtney Harrell. Go, go, go! Who's next? Oh, look at that. It's our Editor, Leila Day. Also, thanks for the voices that you heard sound off in this episode. Let's hear those names.
Berry: I'm Berry.
Brittany: I'm Brittany Luz.
Renee: Renee Richardson.
Tracy: Our original music is by Old Anthony and our engineer is Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Eleanor Kagan for being the alpha of the origin, the originator of this whole fun party. And stay in touch. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @BrokeyMcPoverty. Tell all of your friends about the show and also like maybe two or three frenemies. I don't want you to have to engage too heavily but help a sister out. Make sure to write and subscribe to Going Through It on Apple podcasts, Spotify and wherever free podcasts are sold. And that's our show. I hope you had as much fun as I did. Don't know if that's scientifically possible but come back and we will see you next week. Uh, girl bye!
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
Josie Duffy Rice discusses realizing her role in criminal justice reform.
Representative Ilhan Omar discusses achieving the American dream.
Danielle Brooks discusses finding her way through motherhood.
Cori Murray on lessons learned as Entertainment Director of Essence Magazine.
Naj Austin talks about creating a coworking space celebrating people of color.
Jenna Wortham discusses the importance of making health and wellness a priority.
Meagan Good on her viral fashion choice that rubbed some people the wrong way.
Ashley C. Ford on escaping toxic living situations and living for herself.
Mara Brock Akil on risking it all to protect her show, Girlfriends.
Raquel Willis on finding her voice as an activist for transgender rights.
Lena Waithe on getting her television show made, no matter what.
Angela Davis, aka The Kitchenista, on following her passion as a career pivot.