Many of us want love to be wrapped up in an attractive package with all the bells, whistles, hugs and kisses. I know I do. Father God, please let my mate be smart, kind, generous, a dreamer but a doer, mentally stable, financially free, an advocate and a consumer of therapy, and also, can he look like Idris Elba, please, and thanks! But that’s not always what love is. Realistically, that’s not even what like is!
Salim and Mara Brock Akil have given us a gift with their new show on OWN, Love Is ____. The show debuted June 19, and by now, you should be at least one episode in. Love Is ____ dramatizes Salim and Mara’s love story. William Catlett and Michele Weaver play Yasir and Nuri, respectively, as they reveal the good, bad and frustrating about dating while black in 1990s Los Angeles.
[Full disclosure: OWN flew The Root out to Los Angeles to chat with the stars of Love Is ___ as well as Salim and Mara Brock Akil.]
It was nothing but laughs as Salim and Mara Brock Akil, Catlett and Weaver sat in an OWN conference room readying themselves to share with a group of black women who are journalists (myself included) the beauty of what they’ve been working on together. There’s a reason Oprah didn’t even let Salim and Mara finish their pitch before telling them, “I want your voice” on OWN. Love Is ____ is just that good.
This show doesn’t make you feel like a ’90s R&B song; it is a ’90s R&B song! There are pagers, Zhané songs, lines about light-skin privilege and an incredible and soul-stirring amount of authentic intimacy that I think we’ve been missing in watching representations of black love in entertainment.
One of the aspects I enjoy about the show is that there’s a narrative created by Yasir and Nuri’s older or “present-day selves,” played by Clarke Peters and Wendy Davis. The two reflect on how far they’ve come, while displaying just how connected they’ve managed to stay through the years.
“My job as a storyteller is to give you a piece that we actually haven’t had in our storytelling, to know that we do make it, that we belong in the future. We belong in the present. That is revolutionary in and of itself, that we have taken up the space,” Mara said of Love Is ____ and its structure.
“Love is achievable if you design it and refine it,” Mara said as each reporter slid their recorders closer to her mouth. We could all tell that we were about to get gems that would help us contribute to our own love lives. It’s because Salim and Mara have a love that feels like they were meant to find each other. A love of which Instagram posts are jealous. Their love feels weathered and just as flirty as the first date.
Salim stared at Mara as she defined love, and when she finished talking, he said, “That’s some good shit.” We all giggled at his pause and admiration, as if it were directed as us. And then he continued: “Love is sovereignty. It is being able to decide for yourself what that is.”
Even though Mara and Salim’s love is the thing #RelationshipGoals are made of, they don’t want people thinking that this show is a blueprint for love. Salim said, “We just want people to see it as permission to define it for yourself.”
For decades, Mara has hidden herself in many of her characters, from Moesha to Girlfriends to Being Mary Jane, but Love Is ____ is the most outward facing she’s ever been in revealing herself in her work.
“A lot of people keep asking the reason why we are even telling the story,” Mara started. “It was a[n] honest answer to a sincere question that people, mainly black women who look just like you [motions to the black journalists across the table], have been asking: ‘How do y’all do it?’”
The Akils’ secret is constantly choosing each other. And to that point, actress Michele Weaver shared her definition of love, which mirrored the Akils’ successful relationship, “Love is a choice. You just have to make sure you choose the right person.”
And Salim offered, “You know those wrong choices get you closer to the right choices.”
The room erupted, as if triggered by all of our wrong choices from the past.
In the pilot episode, Yasir asks Nuri out on a date to see a sold-out Wynton Marsalis show. Nuri doesn’t immediately agree, and because it is the ’90s, they aren’t able to connect in the days following. Mara shared, “Salim didn’t hear from me right away because of work situations. He had a little bit of information, and he used it. He sent me that article, he sent me the ticket. That was character. ‘I ain’t heard from you and I still want to be with you!’”
Mara was sold on Salim’s genuine interest and effort.
We all know that ultimately Nuri ends up with Yasir; however, on paper, Yasir is seemingly a bad choice. He is unemployed (he even approaches Nuri in underwear because he doesn’t have clean pants?), confident to the point of cocky, and he is sleeping on the couch of his former lover. These are all the signs that point to no, but the thing that helps Yasir stand out is that he is no “fuckboy.”
I introduced Salim to the term. When I asked if he considers Yasir to be a fuckboy, he immediately asked me to define it. I explained that a fuckboy’s only intention is to waste your time, but he pretends that he’s ready to build a life with you.
Salim said, “I’m hoping what the character does is redefine the notion of having your shit together.”
It could be easy to simplify Yasir and to label him a fuckboy, but when you dig into the meat of who he is as a man, you can see it a bit differently.
Catlett, who plays Yasir expertly, said:
We miss love because we already have our preconceptions in our mind of what we think it should be, instead of just accepting it for what it is. That’s what I love about Mara and Nuri, the character, is that even though she had her own thing going on, she’s a visionary. She can see there’s something there. “Just a little bit of nurturing, get into your right king mode, you’re going to go like this.”
He motioned his arms to show us how far a man can go when a woman loves him.
“We’ve talked about it a lot, black men don’t have their shit together, but if you look at Yasir, he really does have shit together. He may not have the accoutrements of what it looks like, he may not have the job just yet. He may not have the car. He may not have the bank account, but his fucking priorities are clear. He loves hard, even to the point of possibly losing Nuri when he tells her, ‘I can’t tell you everything right now.’ He’s doing that not because of himself. He’s doing that because his friend who he’s known for years, he doesn’t want to embarrass her,” Salim said of Yasir’s decision to ask Nuri to give him time to explain why he is with his ex and not communicating with Nuri.
Having your shit together means having your shit together, meaning he’s taken care of. He’s trying to take care of his son. He’s trying to go out in this world and become something. He’s met this woman and he’s trying to commit to her, but he’s not going to commit to her at the expense of someone he’s known for years, and he’s expecting that woman that said that night, “I love you,” to love him.
Salim is clear that he wants to redefine what it means for a man to have his shit together. And Mara’s intention is to redefine what is successful in marriage and the black family structure.
I want to rebuild our family. I want to mend the brokenness in our own families and then our collective family as being black in America. We have to redefine what is successful in a marriage or a relationship of any sort, and sometimes, it’s not always looking for the man who makes more money than I do, which is an American standard based on wealthy white men.
Salim added: “We have to remember that, we are, give or take a few years, just one generation out of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement on a massive scale. When you look at Yasir, you’re looking at a man trying to rebuild something he’s never had.”
Listening to these two creators talk about what they’ve done in reinterpreting their love story as a blueprint for us all was intoxicating. I could have sat there for hours. There’s even so much I had to cut out of this piece because, good Lord, it’s already long enough.
Let me leave you with this Mara gem:
I sit down at the computer and take that next step to actually create the world and then execute the world, and even down to the details of who these people are. But we still have to work on who they are, and we took time for those details and the rhythms of them, and because that is our humanity, and we deserve to be painted with a beautiful fine brush.