Akil, a The Root 100 honoree and the mastermind behind hit TV shows like Girlfriends, The Game and Being Mary Jane, went to journalism school but soon found that she wanted to interject her own commentary into stories in ways that she couldn't do while reporting.
Plus, the stories she wanted to share with the world weren't being green-lit in traditional media. So she went to Hollywood to create fictional characters that represented herself, the women in her world and the situations they go through.
"I chose screenwriting. I chose a way of turning my lens toward the things that I thought were missing in the land of not just television," Akil explains. "I didn't see myself," and that, Akil argued, is "more damaging, to be invisible to society."
"I wanted to paint in and fill in some of that negative space," Akil explained. "It's very damaging to the psyche when you don't see yourself."
But it's what Akil went on to say about her own success in television and film, and the perception of her success, that I found most surprising.
"No one wants to toot their own horn, but it's funny. I've been saying forever, 'We're very successful.' The interesting thing is that most people don't see me as successful, but I'm very successful," she said.
But then she went on to reveal something else: Walking onstage, at that very moment, for the interview at Chicago Ideas Week, was one of her first times feeling that she was "on a talk show" of sorts, "the way I imagined with success I would get one day."
The larger vehicles that recognize and applaud success, she said, don't give her career or her casts the props she thinks they deserve. It's something that I—a huge Akil fan who thinks she's incredibly underrated—think about from time to time as I bask in the idea that both she and another highly successful African-American female showrunner, Shonda Rhimes, are at the top of their game in Hollywood.
"Those sort of institutions," Akil explained, "the machine that creates success—talk shows, magazines, covers of magazines, a spread in a magazine … billboards, these things that say 'success'—I have not really benefited from or participated in … not because I don't want to," she said.
This isn't meant to pit these two African-American female showrunners against each other but, rather, to explore whether mainstream machines exalt TV shows and movies (and their executives) that have black-and-white ensemble casts, and not just black ensemble casts. It feels as if they're supporting a certain kind of diversity, and that, quite frankly, is limiting. It defeats the point.
Rhimes' casts usually feature a lead African-American actress supported very closely by white actors (Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder). Akil's casts, for the most part, are predominantly black (again: Girlfriends, The Game and Being Mary Jane). That Akil's career, her shows and her casts don't get the accolates she feels they deserve sheds light on the idea that while there has been progress regarding diversity in Hollywood, "there's still a long way to go," as Akil pointed out in the interview.
Meaning that shows can be diverse, but if white audiences don't see themselves in a particular show's main role, then mainstream audiences and outlets feel it's too niche to mess with. And that doesn't seem like real progress.
Akil also said that she doesn't like the idea that "African-American women are on the edge of society" or that "Latino women are on the edge of society."
She continued, "The edge is becoming the middle. We are American. We're here."
Well said, Mara.
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features video interviews with scarily insightful people. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.