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March 1, 2015

Prophet of Respect: Why Malcolm X Still Matters 50 Years After His Assassination

And Malcolm X stands for self-empowerment. He is proof that anyone, even those who have fallen far, can free himself. You just have to work harder. That's why his spirit is very much still alive in the whole wide world even 50 years after his death.

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Director Salim Akil on 'Jumping the Broom': "The Biggest Challenge Was to Trust Myself"

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Salim Akil, director of Jumping the Broom

If one did a Google photo search for Salim Akil, pictures of his wife, Mara Brock Akil, are just as likely to come up in the results.

For some less enlightened men, such a close association to one's wife might be bothersome. Not for Akil though. For years, the married couple has collaborated as directors, producers and/or writers on several projects, most notably 'Girlfriends,' the CW sitcom his wife created in 2000 and its spin-off series, 'The Game,' that now airs on BET.

As a matter of fact, Akil, 46, is the first to credit his wife for his success, admitting that the biggest adjustment came when he had to tackle directing 'Jumping The Broom' - which opens in theaters today (May 6) - on his own. Akil shot the bulk of the film, which is about two families who meet at a wedding in Martha's Vineyard, on location in Nova Scotia, Canada. His wife stayed home in Los Angeles, where the two live with their young sons, age 7 and 2. "After working with my wife for so long, it really felt like I was out there alone when she wasn't around," Akil said. "I had a great cast, a great crew, and great producers, but the biggest challenge was to trust myself."

Salim Akil; director; Jumping the Broom


A quick scan of husband and wife's respective IMDB.com pages shows how intertwined their careers are, but it's clear the man of the house is unquestionably the quieter of the two. If his wife is behind the scenes, Akil is even further behind the scenes. But it's a role he kind of relishes, an extension of who he is as a person. "Mara is the more gregarious person, so you've heard a lot more about her, I'm sort of the quiet one," Akil says. "To watch her and her name blossom out there in the public makes me happy because I know she's happy."

As Akil is quick to note, "A happy wife is a happy life."

Akil isn't just comparably quieter than his wife. In the continuum of black male directors, he is often associated with or compared to Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, two of Hollywood's most outspoken figures. But Akil has always maintained a level of anonymity. He doesn't act in his own projects now and up until 'Jumping The Broom,' he's done very little press or promotion for his work. Even on the set of his own film, where directors often call shots through a megaphone, a reel of behind-the-scenes footage shows Akil walking up to cast members to give direction.

"I actually modeled my character in the film after Salim," says Laz Alonso who plays Jason Taylor, a charming but stoic groom-to-be who must help his family get along with the family of his future wife portrayed by Paula Patton. "One thing I noticed about Salim has under no circumstances, regardless of what adversities we faced, he never, ever lost his cool. He was the coolest guy on the planet."

Akil's cool demeanor was shaped during a rather rough upbringing in the Bay Area, where he learned early how to navigate a cruel world. "I literally saw my friends slaughtered – those who weren't were in prison," says Akil, who was a teenage father. He also has a son, 26, and a daughter, 32, and three grandchildren. "My mom spent some time in prison and my step-dad overdosed, and my dad for the most part wasn't around."

As a writer and director, Akil is very aware of the rich source-material his biography offers. Unlike other filmmakers who have used their lives as screen fodder (Perry's 'Madea' films; Lee's 'Crooklyn'), Akil chooses to keep that part of his life private, largely because he can barely get the details out of his mouth, let alone onto the page. "Emotionally, it's just challenging for me," he reveals. "This is the most I've ever talked about it. It just really becomes uncomfortable [to think about]. I start longing, literally, for brighter days and sunnier days."

He has slightly better memories about the path he took to get to Hollywood. In 1999, a year after he wrapped 'Drylongso,' his first indie film in which he starred and also co-produced, Akil decided to move from his hometown of Richmond, Calif., to enroll at UCLA so he could access the school's film resources. When he wasn't studying, he worked at an outpatient facility for the mentally ill. Though the job weighed on him heavily, Akil managed to keep writing scripts and maintain his filmmaking ambitions.

The person who encouraged him most then was a young Mara Brock. The two started dating when he first moved to Los Angeles after a chance meeting at a furniture store. Three months later, she proposed to him.(!) They were engaged for two years before marrying.

During their early years together, they both struggled professionally. But that time was a bit harder for Akil. While Brock got various jobs working in television, Akil said his day job hindered his creative impulses. Although she often told him to quit, Akil was stubborn. "I said, 'That's odd, a black woman asking a black man to quit his job'," he recalls. "I can't quit a job, that just doesn't make sense."

A week later, Akil was fired.

Left with no choice but to follow his passion, Akil started to talk with people about a script he wrote called 'Undertow,' a story about a bipolar schizophrenic detective. 'Undertow' was eventually optioned by Showtime, but never made it to the small screen. Instead, Akil landed an interview to write for the network's popular 'Soul Food,' a series based on George Tillman's 1997 film. By the show's final season, Akil was an executive producer and had directed two episodes. Later, he went on to direct episodes of 'Girlfriends' and 'The Game.'

These days, Akil is more than adequately skilled in his craft. He's developed a sophisticated touch and is able to tell nuanced stories about the different shades of romance. From 'Soul Food' to 'The Game' to 'Jumping the Broom,' there is a similar thread in all that addresses matters of the heart, specifically relationships between family members. "I had a lot of love from my mom, but the life I was living [as a child] was not normal," he explains. "So now, when I can get into marriage, it's interesting to me."

The stories represented in his films are a symbol of his happiness: "It is me smiling."

His wife, children and the friends around motivate him to continue making good work. The couple is preparing to shoot the fifth season of 'The Game,' and planning a remake of 'Sparkle', the classic 1976 film about the ups and downs of a R&B girl group in Harlem.

"We have a finished script that we have turned in the studio," Akil says. No actors have been attached to the project yet. The only names definitely attached are he and his wife. Whether only one or both of their names is in the final credits, Akil has no problem saying they did it together. "I don't question who's running things in our household," he says. "That's the perception people who are powerless need to have. I don't need to have that perception."

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