Over the years, we’ve dealt with pushback against Black stories being told on the big and small screens. At this year’s American Black Film Festival, a panel of creators, producers and writers of some of the most riveting shows on television shared their experiences and words of advice as Black content creators. Panelists included, Janine Sherman Barrois ("ER," "Criminal Minds"), Chris Spencer ("Real Husbands of Hollywood"), Mara Brock Akil ("Girlfriends," "Being Mary Jane") and Salim Akil ("Soul Food the Series," "The Game").
Shadow and Act was present for the lively discussion. Here are some highlights.
On Becoming A Showrunner
Chris Spencer: I guess it just came to me. As an actor we are out there auditioning, and we are trying to impress people. They stopped liking me. I was working with the Wayans and Keenen (Ivory Wayans), told me “You need to create your own lane, your own empire.” So, I started writing. I started doing a lot of writing for comedians, whether it was their standup specials or if they hosted an award show. I wrote for Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps, Chris Rock, I was always one of the guys they would call upon to start writing. So I was fortunate that when I was writing for Kevin Hart and the 2012 BET Awards, I came up with this little sketch called “The Real Husbands of Hollywood”. It took off because it was brilliant. It went viral, so people were taking that little itty bitty sketch and showing it to all of their friends, they were creating fake Facebook accounts, and fake Twitter accounts, and there were petitions to get the show on TV. So when it sold, I became a creator and then a showrunner, but it wasn’t as if I sat back and said that one day I wanted to be a showrunner. My goal was to be Eddie Murphy.
Mara Brock Akil: I wanted to be a showrunner. I knew I wanted control of the story, and I found out later that the name of that person was called a showrunner. I got to meet my mentors, Ralph Farquhar (Mosesha, The Parkers) and Mike Weithorn (South Central, The King of Queens), and when I figured out who they were, I knew what it was that I was supposed to do. I just sort of marched toward that. It’s funny that Janine is sitting here because she was an integral part in my transition from being a production assistant (PA), which is like the entry level role for a writer. Janine was Ralph’s assistant. Janine and Ralph’s other assistants were the advocates for me. The were putting my script in front of Ralph and when I got three seconds with him I was able to pitch myself as a writer for South Central. When I saw South Central, that was the kind of TV show I knew I wanted to write and I knew I wanted to be apart of. But you have to first take that first step. So I wanted to publicly thank you [Janine]. I know I’ve thanked you in person. I had help, is what I’m trying to say.
Janine Sherman Barrois: You came sort of right before that. I was going to say you helped me, because when I saw you and Gina [Prince Bythewood], I was like oh my God, I want to do that.
Mara Brock Akil: Yes, that was when we were doing South Central. So literally like, Gina Prince Bythewood (Love & Basketball) was at that table, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson (Lincoln Heights) was sitting at that table, Micheal Weithorn, Ralph Farquhar, Gary Hardwick (Deliver Us From Eva, The Brothers), they were all sitting at that table. And Janine, you were right across the way and we all had each other’s backs. Even Tracey Blackwell was a PA at the same time. Tracey Blackwell is now an executive at The CW. Tracey was an assistant to Tom Nunen, who was at UPN and Kelly Edwards was an executive. My point is, the advocacy for me came not from higher ups, but from people on the ground, my peers who wanted the same thing that I wanted, helped me to get Ralph’s attention.
Salim Akil: I was just hustling and grinding. I actually got a film made and it went to Sundance, and after Sundance, Showtime reached out to me and asked me what I wanted to do next. And that took awhile. I wanted to make another film, but I was broke. So when Showtime called, I had something I wanted to do next and they liked it. I was going to produce it and John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) was going to direct it, but that never happened. So Showtime said, “Well, look, we have this show that we’re about to do called Soul Food.” They asked me if I would go in and interview for a writing position, and I did. And to Mara’s point, one of Mara’s best friends, Felicia D. Henderson (Sister, Sister, Gossip Girl), was the showrunner and I got the job and worked there. I think I started at the lowest point, like a staff writer position. Felicia sort of became my mentor so; she asked me at the end of the first season what I wanted to do. And I said, “Well, I want to direct next season.” She laughed at me. But, sure enough as a story editor, I wound up directing two episodes and then Felicia left in the third year and she asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “Well I want to run the show, since you aren’t running it.” She really was an advocate for me to run the show, and I wound up running it. That’s how I got into it. I just felt like it was management, but then when I got into it, I realized it was much more. It was fun.
Janine Sherman Barrois: I guess like I was saying, watching Mara, watching Gina Prince and all of these other people, I just said, “This is what I want to do, I want to do what Ralph Farquhar is doing.” I didn’t get a writing break on South Central, but I got a break because I was around people as an assistant. And from that job, I went on to assist different people and eventually got into the Warner Brothers program. Warner Brother’s has a writing program that finds talent and acts as a colander to business. So I was in that program, and from that I got staffed on Lush Life, a show from Yvette Lee Bowser when she was doing Living Single, and that only lasted about six episodes, and then I got hired on to The Jamie Foxx Show and I did that for two or three years. And after Jamie Foxx, I got hired on The PJs, and so I did that for a couple years. Then, I wrote a movie that got the attention of John Wells, who is one of the biggest television dramatic producers. He was doing The West Wing and Third Watch at the time, and he hired me; and that was sort of my big break. I spent the next five years on Third Watch, the next four years rising up to executive producer on ER and then my former boss who created Third Watch hired me as an executive producer on Criminal Minds. And so it is this sort of advocacy of people who have seen your work who fight for you, because you need mentors.
On the Skill Sets Needed To Garner Major Positions in Entertainment
Salim Akil: I think for me as Mara calls it, I was a 3AM person for Felicia from the day I got the job. And I think that helped me, but my background helped me, coming from where I came from; being poor, having seen so many brothers die. Making the money that I was making was exciting to me, so I didn’t take it for granted, and I got married along the way. Being a 3AM person, being a person that she could call, and at that time Toronto was poppin’ off as a place to shoot, I was ready to go. I had never been out of the country, so I was ready to go. All of these things culminated in the fact that I wound up being on set more than anybody else. So, the skills that I acquired were immediate. Line directors and toning directors were giving notes because Felicia was out in Los Angeles writing. Being that 3AM person, I think really benefited me.
Janine Sherman Barrois: Same with me, I think when I started Third Watch if you were to say, “Hey is the Black girl gonna be the one who writes cops the best?” people would have said “No.” But, I just stayed up late. I looked at every script; I stayed until 2AM because I felt like because I’m African-American I had to do it. I remember one time being at the commissary and seeing all the other writers and they said, “John Wells never takes notes, I never give him notes.” And I’m like, “He takes all my notes.” And they were like, “What do you mean he takes all of your notes?!” And I said, “Well I give him notes. He gives us the script, and I give notes.” They were not giving notes because they assumed he wouldn’t take it. I was giving notes because I thought he would fire me if I didn’t. I was like, “I’m Black I have to give notes.” We formed a bond that way because I didn’t go around gloating I just thought that everyone was doing it. And then he just said I’m going to take you under my wing.
Mara Brock Akil: It’s funny you talk about skill. I really feel like my education at Northwestern really gave me a foundation of confidence. I got taught by some of the best, and I was around some of the best. Leaving that institution I felt good about myself, and I felt that was an important ingredient; just having some confidence about what I was doing. So when I was sitting at the The Sinbad Show as a PA – Wendy Raquel Robinson will tell you this to this day – I would tell people, “I am a writer working as a stage PA.” So, I was always writing. That’s another thing, you have to do the work. I think some times when people come to Hollywood and even these events, people think “Oh, Mara or Chris, or Janine or Salim are going to see me and my life is going to change in that moment.” I had that belief too and I understand it, but I think the best thing about these events is that they give you inspiration to go back and work; it’s time to work. So my day job was making the money and being onset, but I still had to go to work, and the work was sitting in the chair and writing; so I was developing my skill. I’ll also say this, I used to live at a coffee shop called Insomnia Café in LA and that’s where I also met Salim. I got a husband and a writing career. But it also prepared me for where I am now. I am a showrunner based as a writer. Television is a writer’s medium so really most showrunners are going to come from writing. If you want to be a writer you have to be comfortable with missing parties, missing events. Sometimes you’re alone, and you have to be OK with doing the work. And even during the broke years, and I was broke at Insomnia Café, I didn’t feel broke. I was there doing the work. Ralph, whose name has come up quite a bit, used to always say, “You got to be ready”. I had scripts when it was time to talk to Ralph Farquhar about being on his show. I had two pieces of information. I knew there was a writer’s training program, so I knew he could get me for cheap and I also had several scripts that proved I am a good writer. And then I sold myself as “You need me, and let me tell you why you need me. I know why I need you, that’s clear.” He was writing a show, South Central, about a single mother raising children in South Central LA; that is me. I told him about my life, I told him about my mother, I told him about growing up in Compton. You share your life; you start telling them who you are. You are saying, “This is what I’m offering you. “These scripts are telling you that I can tell a story. Ralph was a generous showrunner, he took us through the process of running a show and I always was the one to stay behind when everyone else was running out the door. And I think being there for your showrunner; when he has somebody he can reach out to and has his back, he will eventually have your back and that goes back to the advocacy.
On the ‘Work” of Comedy
Chris Spencer: Well, let me tell you what’s going on now. You have these guys who have these fifteen-second clips where they put their balls in bowl of milk, and they get ten million hits. So bookers and colleges across the country are going “Oh my God, we have to get the guy with the testicles in the milk.” It’s funny on the clip, but then he gets to whatever University and he’s required to do an hour of material. Well, the balls in the milk is only fifteen seconds, so now he has to do standup which he doesn’t have the ability to do. It’s great that you have this following, but if you want to be a standup comedian, you’re going to have to go night-in and night-out and perform standup. A lot of the problem with us is that we only want to perform in one room, in "Black rooms" only because, there is a different energy when Black people laugh. But then you have to go and do a showcase at the Improv in front of HBO, NBC, and Showtime; white people basically. But, you’ve only worked your Black muscle. It’s great that you guys have these videos, but if want to be a standup comedian you have to go do standup. Now, my suggestion is that there is a way not to turn down the money. You can be the draw as the host but bring three or four other guys to carry the show. You can’t do an hour already when you’ve only been doing standup for a year. You can’t. I don’t care who you are, its impossible. If you want to do real standup, it’s going to take years of preparation and work.
Flexing the Mainstream Muscle
Mara Brock Akil: At the end of the day, being a showrunner means that you are a story teller. You are the steward of the story. Now, it’s a visual medium so you have all of those other production elements to tell a story; to manage and make sure it reaches the screen to say what you want. I think if you’re a storyteller whether its one room or another, or one race or another, or gender, or whatever, if you hit the universality of storytelling even in its specificity, you can reach everybody through the quality of the storytelling.
Salim Akil: You have to be able to see yourself in a prism beyond just being Black. Also, you can see yourself as being Black, but know that what you’re doing is worth anybody’s attention. I think one of the things that we have to start to accept, especially in television, is that we can be like Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison’s books translate worldwide so I have this thing that I always say which is that, “Me and Mara do Black on purpose.” Our characters don’t just happen to be Black and that’s ok. If white folk don’t want to watch then that’s their problem. I’m not out here trying to please white folk. I’m out here trying to be an artist and to make some money. Now that doesn’t mean, white folk, that I don’t want your money, it just means that I love my people. I did Jumping the Broom purely based on the fact that I wanted young Black girls to be able to see that they’re loved in the world. We need to start seeing ourselves as mainstream, we are not others, we are the mainstream.
Janine Sherman Barrois: If you go in an environment and you are one of the few Black people on the show, you have to embrace that you’re Black. You can’t turn away from being Black. When you get into environments, whether you are in an environment that is predominantly white or predominantly Black, you have to be a fierce storyteller and not back away from it. They are paying you for your point of view, and they don’t want you to all of a sudden get nervous or scared because its something that you know about your culture, or you know about growing up because that is what they hired you for.
On Starting Out
Chris Spencer: It’s the approach.
Janine Sherman Barrois: You just need to keep writing, you just need to keep doing what you’re doing. Most of us have been doing this for fifteen, twenty, years. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We just can’t go, “Hey we met you, we love you so much we’re going to put you on our show.” It doesn’t work that way. But if you write, if you move to LA, if you get in a writer’s group and you get multiple samples, you’ll get an agent. People do, that’s what happens, but there is no kind of skipping the line.
Mara Brock Akil: What I was going to say was to start where you are. It’s real simple stuff. When you show up to work, show up on time; don’t come to work with an attitude. Nobody, a peer nor a veteran, is going to reach out and help you if you have an attitude. Start where you’re at by being the best at what you do, your role at the company where you are, shines and get’s people’s attention. Staying later, working harder.
Salim Akil: There is no excuse for people not to make a film or TV show today; you can make a film on your iPhone. So a lot of people are good at talking but there are very few people that I actually see doing something.
On Staying Encouraged As A Black Creator
Chris Spencer: I don’t pay attention to any [negative] stuff, I just keep going.
Mara Brock Akil: People are going to tell you all of the bad stories. You do have to tune it out. One of the things that I do that is very important is being aware of who you are surrounding yourself with when you need repair; when you need to be reinvigorated. And that is just as important as pursuing you’re goals. So I would say, take a little bit of stock in your personal life. Who is encouraging you, and who are you encouraging?
Salim Akil: Also take into context where you are. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but we are literally one generation up out of Jim Crow, so you have to consider the context. This is a fight; it’s not a luxury, so of course racism is there; it’s always been there, and its going to be there until we get rid of it. Part of what we do, putting images out there, is fighting years and years of the misinformation of our images. So we are literally one generation up out of Jim Crow – legal apartheid in this country. We have to remember that you can’t go into the world not carrying that with you. So when you’re faced with white folk, or your own folk who want to say, “No, this doesn’t work,” you have to be bold enough and strong enough to say, “No, I’m going to do this whether you let me or not.”
Advice for the Next Generation of Creators.
Mara Brock Akil: It’s about being ready for your opportunity. I want young people to be very cognizant about their financial security. What I mean by that is, one of the keys to Salim and my success is living below our means so you can take an opportunity that might be less money, but a better leap for your career. I think that sometimes that’s where I see the gap in Hollywood specifically. You have to check your budget and start living below your means, and start watching how you spend so you can make the moves you need to make.
Salim Akil: You’ve got to move to LA. The TV business is in LA. I guarantee you, as soon as you land in LA, you’ll throw your shoe and hit a thousand writers.
Mara Brock Akil: Go to Insomnia; it’s still there. Someone told me the same thing when I was in Chicago, and I thought well, John Hughes… but no. The business is where the business is and you have to go to where the business is.
Leadership Attributes Used to Get the Best Work Out of Your Team
Salim Akil: One of the things that me and Mara pride ourselves on is, from the bottom to the top, we respect people. So that’s the first thing, you respect everyone on your set and number two; no idea is a bad idea. I tell people on my set all the time, “Don’t bombard me, but if you have a good idea, talk to me about it.” Also, let them be creative. If you hire people, don’t micromanage, if you hire them, you’re hiring them for a reason, so allow them to do their job. They will be able to be creative and find their own space in what you are trying to do. And that keeps people motivated.
Mara Brock Akil: And I would add to that, as a showrunner and a storyteller, you have to be sharp on your vision. You have to be clear on your vision and able to articulate it to all the people in your cast and crew. And you being the motivator, you set the tone.
Janine Sherman Barrois: You also have to make sure that you hire people that you think are more talented than you. Do not be fearful of talent, talent is what you want. If you walk away going, “Damn it, I wish I came up with that,” that person is the right person. Hire people that every single day you are pushing them and they are pushing you, but their energy is better then yours. It’s something that you’re not bringing but they are bringing. A lot of people get scared when they see talent underneath them. Don’t get scared of it; embrace it. And tell people that they’re great. Once you tell people that you think they’re good they are going to continue to bust their butt for you.
On Keeping Black Shows on the Air
Chris Spencer: We can’t control ratings; all we can do is control the content so our goal is create and manage the best show that we can. And hopefully, the marketing, network and the publicity team are on your team, and they want to help you. But your goal is to make the best pie you can make.
Mara Brock Akil: Black Twitter. We have been powerful. I think we’re one of the reasons why we’ve had such an explosion in television creative content. The Game was put back on the air because of you guys. We had a good product, and the product was taken away and the consumer said, “No, not today and used social media.” We should not be cocky about that, but it is powerful. The power of social media is relevant and I think we should continue using it and voice our power there.
Janine Sherman Barrois: And support the shows that you like.
On Speaking Up For Yourself
Salim Akil: You just got to be you, it’s as simple as that. I don’t want Black women or Black men out there walking a delicate line. You may think that it’s easy for me to sit up here and say that, but I’ve been this way my whole life. I’m not up here pretending to be who I am. You have to walk in this world as a man [or woman], and if you have a problem with something someone is doing you have to tell them. If that person fires you then that’s their problem. That just means Allah has something better for you. And, you just have to move on and thank God you have a voice. There’s no f*ckin delicate lines.
Janine Sherman Barrois: The thing is, you cannot sit in a room and act like you’re supposed to be happy to be there. You are there because you are being paid, because you have a voice. There is a thing that happens with us a lot of times when we get out of our comfort zones, we get into rooms with a whole group of white people, and we get nervous. You gotta shut all that down and just be you, because people fought real hard to get you in the room. They don’t want you in that room to be a mouse or shrinking in the background. And Salim’s right, if they fire you, they fire you, it doesn’t matter.
Salim Akil: If someone really doesn’t want you in the room, you’re fighting with your hand behind your back. You’re not being yourself, but they sure as hell are being themselves.
Mara Brock Akil: I want to add, there was a bunch of times when I was pitching things in the room to Ralph Farquhar for Moesha that he said was not right for the show. I’ve seen this in my own rooms where a writer will pitch something, and I say no, and they get an attitude. Don’t do that! They rejected idea is still your voice, so write it. Ralph used to say, “Save it for your pilot” as a joke, and I did, and it’s called Girlfriends. That’s your voice, and that’s ok, but it just wasn’t their voice. But to what Salim and Janine said, there are really big things that will define you as a man and as a woman, and you’ve got to stand on that.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami