When Mara Brock Akil set out to write, produce and direct the series premiere for her new OWN drama “Love Is___” she says she wanted to share the story of black love with a wider audience.
“I don’t really think we’ve really seen the humanity of black love deep enough,” she explains. “I treated the direction of this almost like an independent film or a foreign film because…that is how I feel our existence is in this country is. We’re foreigners, so we have to tell our stories in ways that celebrate our own beauty and even our own flaws. And we invite the audience into that conversation so it will then open them up and the conversation will evolve.”
The series, which is set in the 1990s, centers on a young couple in the earliest days of their courtship. Nuri, played by Michele Weaver, is based on Brock Akil, with Yasir, played by Will Catlett, based on Salim Akil. Pulling from their own lives, Brock Akil wrote both characters as writers, though to different degrees of success. Nuri works on a television series and is about to break out, while Yasir is struggling — so much so that he has trouble paying his pager bill.
“We’re using real facts and manipulating them and making sure I hit some of the tentpole moments that I thought were specific and unique to our relationship and the time,” Brock Akil says. “I actually think it’s a lot of fun for the audience to kind of play that game of ‘What is real and what is [exaggerated]?’ That’s the freedom, actually, to let it go.”
In real life, the producing powerhouses have been married for over two decades. The first season of the show explores a slightly fictionalized version of their trials and tribulations from the first year of their relationship, punctuated by flashes into the future to find the couple still happily married after two decades.
“It allows the viewer to lean back into a journey and hope people will just embrace it,” Brock Akil says of knowing the outcome for the couple from the start.
She admits that when she first thought about doing a show based on her own relationship, it wasn’t at the top of her list of projects. But, she shares, a combination of constantly being asked by fans on social media about how she does it, finding a passionate way into the story, and the timing being right is what led her to ultimately explore the idea.
“When I was in ’97 I didn’t know I was in a very major moment,” she points out. “But with the privilege of reflection I do. And that’s what artists should do — they should help illuminate and reflect the human condition.”
Two decades may have passed since the Akils were at the point in their lives that the characters find themselves in during the first season of the show, but some of the topics touched upon will certainly still be raw for those involved. The show dives into past relationships for both Nuri and Yasir, and Yasir has an off-screen son, just as Akil himself has a son from a previous relationship.
But Brock Akil adds that at this point in her life, she finds it “beautiful…to stand in the middle of my fear and then get to be on the other side of it.”
“To choose love and jump in not knowing, with a lot of unknowns, is a brave act,” Brock Akil says.
Brock Akil notes that in the past jumping into love has been depicted as “naive” or falsely “pure,” pointing out that “romantic comedy…sort of took a nosedive in the ’90s because we learned how to get the girl or get the guy but [not] how do we keep them?” So while visually she was all about using sunlight and camera flares to depict the “magical moments” of falling in love, she also made it a point for the story to “talk about love in its complexity.”
“It’s not all a smooth road because that bubble that they’re in when they fall in love is very safe, but then you get under the gaze of society and, more importantly people you love and they’re telling you, ‘He’s broke, he’s not worth it’ or ‘She’s not what you thought you’d have.’ And yet they keep choosing — whether their conscious mind is choosing it or their heart is choosing it — they are choosing it,” she says. “If we define it for ourselves, then it’s achievable.”