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.
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Image: ABFF 2015 “Life of A Showrunner” Panel