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Showbiz couple strive to make it 'Sparkle'

The potential for backlash abounds as Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil remake the beloved 1976 original. But they're determined. This is a story about America.

August 11, 2012|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • Mara Brock Akils and her husband, Salim, who write, produce and direct, seperately and together, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Mara Brock Akils and her husband, Salim, who write, produce and direct,… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

Salim Akil's smile froze as he recalled a day last year when he received a studio offer he feared might derail his blossoming career. "I remember coming home and telling my wife, 'You're not going to believe this, but they just offered me "Sparkle,"'" he said, shaking his head. "She looked at me and said, '"Sparkle"'? I said, 'Yeah, the studio wants to do a remake. But I'm not touching it. Black people ain't going to lynch me.'"

Writer-producer Mara Brock Akil instantly understood. Like her husband, she was a passionate fan of the original "Sparkle," about the rise of a female singing group from Harlem. The musical drama is regarded by devotees, particularly among African Americans, as a seminal film in a wave of 1970s black cinema because of its classic scenario centered on the teenage title character overcoming family turmoil and romantic heartbreak, its rising-star cast headed by Irene Cara ("Fame") and Philip Michael Thomas ("Miami Vice") and a hit soundtrack by soul giant Curtis Mayfield. (It was written by Howard Rosenman and Joel Schumacher and directed by Sam O'Steen.)

Getting involved with a new "Sparkle" had the potential to lead to grief the couple didn't need. They were quietly building their own TV empire; their sports-flavored comedy "The Game"was the most popular series on BET after premiering in 2011 to 7.7 million viewers, making it at the time the top-rated ad-supported sitcom in cable history. A mega development deal with BET was in the works for the couple to lead the network further into the scripted series arena. The pre-opening buzz on Salim's feature directorial debut,"Jumping the Broom," about two socioeconomically opposite families clashing at a lavish wedding, was upbeat, and he was pursuing other movie projects.

With that full plate, the Akils were establishing themselves as a Hollywood powerhouse and rarity — one of the few married couples to produce, direct and write, together and individually, on TV and film projects. That ascent, as one of the most prominent African American creative forces in Hollywood, suggested that taking on a new "Sparkle" might be foolishly risky.

But almost overnight, Salim's initial reluctance started to melt, while Mara imagined ways of making the central story relevant today by "empowering" the female characters who were largely victimized in the original, moving the setting from 1958 Harlem to 1968 Detroit during the civil rights era and transforming Sparkle into a songwriter as well as a singer.

Little more than a year after that first offer, the Akils are among the main producers of the new version, which opens Friday with "American Idol"winner Jordin Sparks in the title role and the late Whitney Houston in her last screen performance. The Sony Pictures Entertainment film was directed by Salim and marks Mara's first movie screenplay. And while they are proud of their first big-screen collaboration, there are doubters skeptical about the revamp.

"Sparkle" is emblematic of what the Akils call their "brand" — using black stories and characters to illustrate universal truths about the American dream. Said Salim: "In this larger conversation about diversity, we want to really show that we're all the same. We are all experiencing the same stories. Our characters are specifically black on purpose. There's a sophistication and honesty in that."

"We really do strive for sophistication and high quality and to have that deeper conversation through our work," added his wife. "We don't expect to answer all the questions, but the conversation is important."

"Sparkle" is just the tip of the artistic iceberg for Akil Productions. The couple is developing BET's first scripted drama, "Being Mary Jane," starring Gabrielle Union as a TV news anchor grappling with single life, scheduled to premiere next year. Mara created the series, and Salim directed the pilot. They are also executive producers of "The Game," about the women involved with the players of a fictional San Diego football team. The show, which Mara created, is being reworked because of the recent exits of its most prominent stars, Tia Mowry-Hardricht and Pooch Hall.

Despite the relentless schedule, the Akils seemed relaxed as they sat in an executive's office at Sony Studios after a screening of the film to members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The members gave the film, which contains new renditions of Mayfield's "Sparkle" songs as well as original songs byR. Kelly, a rousing reception, particularly during Houston's solo of "His Eyes Are on the Sparrow" in a scene set in a church.

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