As ET celebrates the 20th anniversary of Girlfriends, creator Mara Brock Akil opened up about the lasting legacy of the hit series, who was almost cast in Tracee Ellis Ross’ role as Joan, her and the cast’s failed attempt to do a movie after its unceremonious cancellation in 2008 and what it means that fans can now stream all 172 episodes on Netflix.
“I have been telling anyone who would listen, who had a little bit of a signal to a huge signal that Girlfriends and [its spinoff] The Game needed to be on a streaming service and deserved a place for their audience to be able to enjoy it,” Akil says over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles the same day as it’s announced that she signed a deal with Netflix to create new content.
First premiering on Sept. 11, 2000, the UPN series followed the lives of four Black women -- Joan (Ross), Maya (Golden Brooks), Lynn (Persia White) and Toni (Jill Marie Jones) -- as they faced “life’s test and triumphs together.” Over the course of eight seasons, they went from dating to divorce, faced families and friends, embraced their differing backgrounds and remained loyal friends no matter the circumstances.
What kicked off with a chance encounter with Joan’s ex-boyfriend, dubbed “Toe-sucking Charles” in the premiere, went on to tackle issues, like colorism, domestic violence, gender politics and sexuality. From the sillier laughs to the more serious takes, all of it reflected the interior lives of women at the time. “We were just really being heard,” Akil says, revealing that so much of it came from the real-life anecdotes of the people in the writers’ room, which at times was like therapy, with lots of confessions of feelings and experiences.
Because there were so many characters beyond the four leads, Akil says she was able to bring in various perspectives that not only enriched the storytelling onscreen but represented a lot of points of view. As a result, “people can feel seen in the programming,” she says.
It was very much unlike Sex and the City, which ran from 1998 to 2004 and largely ignored Black experiences despite taking place in New York City. “I was very frustrated that Black women couldn’t even be extras,” she continues. “So, Girlfriends was my answer to getting things done. It was about wanting to document what Black women were thinking at the time, what we were feeling, what we were concerned about and dispelling the myth of the strong Black woman.”
And in doing so, Akil -- and many other Black TV creators at the time -- had to fight for every bit of representation along the way, from the casting to the hair to the dialogue. “I wanted a spectrum,” Akil says of the women’s skin tones.
As it turns out, Joan was supposed to be played by Regina King -- “She was my muse,” Akil says -- but the actress had different career plans and the part eventually went to Ross. Meanwhile, Jones, who had very little on her résumé at the time, was the last to be cast after an agonizing search for an actress with a darker tone to balance out the existing trio, which included Brooks and White. “I’m not going to name the actor, but there was another strong performance that came through but she could have looked like Tracee’s sister. But Jill was also the better actress,” Akil recalls. “I made this huge plea that it was Jill and when they said yes, I remember crying.”
No sooner than the cast was finalized, it was onto the next fight, this time over Ross’ hair and for her to be able to wear it naturally instead of blown out. “I’m really proud that Girlfriends was a big part of leading that change for Black women wearing their hair naturally,” Akil says, adding that it eventually led her to be able to have a character wear Bantu knots on The Game. Looking back on it, she says it was a revolutionary moment. And considering now, when laws making hair discrimination illegal are finally being passed, “I’m proud of the progress,” she adds.
“Fighting that fight and bringing in Black culture into that education for executives was important,” Akil explains. “But those fights, I’m so proud of all of them because we got to reflect their beauty, let alone tell stories about HIV and AIDS, Black women and fibroids… or even women’s sexuality.”
At the time, the phrase “sex positive” didn’t exist, but that’s what the characters were. And Akil fought for every joke or line about condoms, female pleasure or the existence of sexuality. “These women are all these things and they have sex,” she says.
“Mara really challenged our audience at a very early age when no one else was doing that,” Brooks says now, applauding the creator for pushing the boundaries at the time, while Ross adds, “We all believed in the power of representation in terms of the characters we were playing.”
Despite the success of the series, which not only was a ratings hit at the time but served as a tentpole for the UPN before going to The CW, it came to an end amid the Writers Guild of America strike in 2008, leaving the show without any proper resolution after eight seasons and fans clamoring for more. Akil says they “tried in the past, for many years, to get a movie going,” but nothing ever came of it.
However, the spirit of Girlfriends lives on, especially in HBO’s Insecure, created by and starring Issa Rae, who has cited series like Girlfriends and Living Single for influencing her own series. Not only has it paid a direct nod to its predecessors, it’s continuing to push the narrative of Black woman forward. “When I see what Issa and that cast has done and what they are doing, I am more than proud,” Akil says. “They took the baton and they are running their lap.”
Although the creator and Girlfriends are now both part of the Netflix family, a reboot or continuation still seems a long way off. “I don’t imagine living in a world where [it’s not a] possibility, so I always leave the door open for that right,” she says, excited to have audiences new and old able to watch the series again. But she’s excited about what she can bring to the platform. “My focus is new storytelling… I have evolved and I want an opportunity to keep sharing those narratives with my loyal audiences as well as a new audience, to let them know who I am.”
Like she was able to do for the UPN with Girlfriends, BET with Being Mary Jane, she hopes she can do it with Netflix and the next idea that comes along. “These shows actually built networks,” Akil says. “Now that I get to go to Netflix -- that’s the mothership -- I think my goal is to create this boutique experience within that. I get to bring my empire and my audience to the mothership [where] I can build something that will last and be in the canon forever for anybody to find.”
In the meantime, Akil will continue to celebrate with fans -- “Who I tip my hat to,” she says -- when she hosts an Instagram Live on Netflix's Strong Black Lead page this evening, starting at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET, in addition to a Twitter Watch Party during the first two episodes of Girlfriends an hour later.