Love stories were made for the screen. There is a magic that comes with falling, diving in head first and allowing yourself to become connected and enraptured with another soul. In romance films, the audience is pulled under quickly, caught up in the first mesmerizing moments of desire and lust. However, television allows artists and audiences to unpack the nuances of love. We can understand the grit and imperfections that come with entangling two lives together. The enchantment is still there, but there is also space for the reality of it all, the past relationships, finances and the grind of daily life.
Set in Los Angeles in the 1990s, married Hollywood dream team Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil -- who've brought us series like Girlfriends, The Game and Black Lightning, present Love Is__. A love story based loosely off of their relationship, the gorgeously shot drama follows Nuri (portrayed by Michele Weaver) and Yasir (portrayed by Will Catlett). Told from the perspective of the couple 20 years into the future, wiser Nuri (Wendy Davis) and Yasir (Clarke Peters) reflect on their initial spark. At different points in the lives and careers when they first meet, the pair sees something special in one another. When they first connect, Nuri is a new homeowner with a coveted position in the writer’s room on a new black sitcom Marvin. Yasir, on the other hand, is struggling in Los Angeles. A recent transplant from the Bay, he's an aspiring writer/director who is trying to make his last two unemployment checks stretch as far as possible. A week before the Love Is__ series premiere, I sat in the OWN offices in Los Angeles to chat with the Akils, Catlett and Weaver about bringing the sexy and rich love story to the screen, what it was like to reflect on the ‘90s and why seeing black love onscreen is so healing.
Looking back on her relationship all these years later while telling her story through Yasir and Nuri, Mara was able to see some things differently. The setback and heartbreaks she endured before meeting her husband were all a part of the journey. "It’s interesting," the acclaimed writer/producer said. "You wind up perfecting your vision of what (love) should look like for you. And then, someone comes into your life, and they maybe wreck that vision a little bit, but it gives you the opportunity to prune. To say, 'You know, I thought I wanted that, but when I got it, it wasn't really what I expected, maybe I was trying to fit in.' I always think that every relationship is a gift. I think you can choose to say it was a failure because it didn't reach your expectations, but if it lasted long enough to really be able to reflect on it and look at it, there's a gift in that. In the pilot, there is a Cassandra Wilson CD reference; that was a very real reference. It was all preparing me because I was just really getting into jazz. When (Salim) literally asked me to go to Blood on the Fields, I was a little bit more attracted to the idea of that. As fine as he is, that was also attractive."
As charming as Yasir and Nuri’s connection is, the Akils weren’t afraid of showing the characters' cracks and imperfections. Yasir, in particular, is walking into his destiny with burdens and baggage resting squarely on his shoulders. "We've talked about it a lot," Salim said. "We've written about it a lot. Black men don't have their s**t together. But if you look at Yasir, he really does have his shit together. He may not have the car, and he may not have the bank account, but his f**king priorities are clear. He loves hard. Having your s**t together means he's trying to take care of his son. He's trying to go out in this world and become something. So if you look at his journey, he is willing to sacrifice all the accouterments of having your shit together in order to be who he is. I'm hoping Yasir's character will redefine the notion of having your s**t together. When no one's looking, that man's still fasting, and when no one's looking, he's out in a parking lot praying. When no one's looking, he says to her, 'We gotta stop. Because I think I've already gone past what I should go, but I don't wanna go that far.’ It would have been so much easier to have the sex."
Presenting Yasir’s flaws and all the varying angles of his being and journey are what made Will Catlett latch on to Love Is__ in the first place. In the midst of varying depictions of young black men on the small screen including Atlanta, Queen Sugar and Insecure, Yasir’s journey is also remarkable. "We get to define and redefine the image of a black man on television, and I'm excited about that," the Black Lightning actor revealed. "I'm excited for people to see, to view this show in China somewhere and see black men differently. They treat us differently. You know, maybe the cop that pulls us over thinks differently because he saw this show. That we are human. We do have emotions. We do feel things. We do cry. We have all those things that everyone else has. They don't have to agree with it, but they gotta see it. They're gonna feel a real black man on television."
There is so much propaganda floating around about black women labeling us as harsh and unlovable. However, that’s just noise. Black women are falling in love and getting married, and with Love Is__, Mara wanted black women to remember to stand firm in our wants, needs and desires. "I trust Nuri," she emphasized. "I trusted myself. I'm also a woman that is prideful of our legacy in this country. Black women are strong. We're beautiful. We're nurturing, we're sharing and we do love hard. We love our men just as hard. But also I can eat; I'm good on that front. So what else do I need? I think we should celebrate who we are and our legacy in this country. We know how to take care of ourselves in that way. So let that part be okay. Look for the things that we haven't had at all. This is a part of rebuilding. A lot of people keep asking why we are even telling this story. I want to mend the brokenness of our collective family -- being black in America. We have to redefine what is successful in a marriage or a relationship of any sort. Sometimes it's not always looking for the man who makes more money than I do, which is an American standard, based upon wealthy white men. You meet Yasir broke, but you know 20 years later when he's sitting on that couch, he ain't broke."
For Michele Weaver, becoming Nuri was a chance to see black women authentically. "Nuri is a believer," Michele declared. "She dreams, and she believes them. But she's also willing to work for them and fight for them, and she's underestimated. I've always felt so underestimated. And that's what I love about the character because women always get put in a box. It's a great time to have a character as complex as Nuri. I love that Mara wrote her not to be perfect. She's not supposed to be. As a child, I dealt with perfection like crazy. I would just break down about being perfect. I think it's something that a lot of women go through. Whether it's about our bodies, our faces or our words, we don't wanna sound stupid. You don't wanna make the wrong decision. We think our lives depend on one decision, but it doesn't. If you fail, get up. That's what I love about Nuri is she has the ability to love and forgive in the same second. I think that's what we need. We need that hope and that fight. People forget to fight for what they believe in."
Love Is__ is set at a very distinct time. The ‘90s had a certain weight and authenticity. Technology at that time hadn't evolved to the point where we connected to one another instantly. The anticipation of receiving a page or a phone call added to the adventure of getting to know someone new. "I think in this day and age, we have too many options," Mara reflected. "I think even in our lives we begin to become so anxious about options that you miss people. You're so caught up in the possibility of something unattainable that there's an amazing person in front of you that you won't value. Relationships take time. You have to sow into relationships. You get out of relationships what you put into it. It's funny; there's magic in love. I often say, 'Love is a daily leap.' That's how we sustain it. This whole first season of Love Is__ is about courtship. It's a very fragile time where we judge every little thing. You're looking for a reason to be out. I think there was a magic to the time. You had to wait, have patience and trust that someone was gonna call you. Picking up the phone and hearing someone's voice is a part of the dance. It's a part of it, it's a part of the romance, and it's fun."
Courtesy of OWN/Photographer: Chris Frawley
The series is set in a moment when Black Hollywood was on the rise. The Akils met amid a slew of greenlit black TV shows and at a time when black films were dominating the box office. Love Is__ captures that. "LA had a vibe," the Girlfriends creator recalled. "It was very much looking for the next best thing, especially when Black Hollywood was just emerging. You have to put this in context, too. In the '80s, things were rough. In the '90s, corporate America realized they could monetize black culture. We couldn't get in those gates the day before, but then one day it was, ‘Oh, wait a minute, we can use their content cheaply to build out UPN, WB, cable, then we can get rid of them when we don't need it anymore.’ Well, it still let us in. It was important to me to show. Looking back, we have a love and a nostalgia for those shows. Back then, not all the shows were well-received. Some of my fondest memories being in those rooms and laughing and joking and trying to figure out what deserves to be there or not. Seeing the Nuri character speaking up in the writers room, tells you a few things. It shows you what kind of writer she is, how thoughtful she is and what her intentions are. It was a hopeful time, and that translates into the relationship."
Getting the right people to play Nuri and Yasir was essential. These actors had to bring a very personal journey to life while getting the audience to lean into the story. "You just see it!" Mara exclaimed. "You have a vision for what you want, and then you see it. I saw the dailies on Black Lightning and I was like, 'Hold up. This brotha is bringing it!' (Will) has a breadth of talent, and he has a depth of it. When I met Kim Coleman, who cast this, I told her what I was looking for for Nuri. Michele possesses something that I can't direct. She has a light in her; you are drawn to her. Her smile is, it's not just beautiful, but it draws you in, and I need you to come in with her. When we paired them together, I was like, ‘Oh!' You can't deny what is real."
There is Yasir and Nuri’s story, and Salim and Mara’s story and all of our collective stories about love, loss and the beauty of the journey, but what does love honestly mean? "Love is sovereignty," Salim said. "Love is being able to decide for yourself what that is. I think oftentimes we get caught up in what love looked like for our friends, our relatives, our parents or whatever definition of it you use, but you have to define it for yourself. I think ultimately when we talk about this show, we don't want people to see it as some sort of blueprint. We just want people to see it as permission to define it for yourself, so I think love is being super creative in your own life."
For Will, love is almost a mystical thing. "Love gives no reason," he proclaimed. "Love's not invited. Love is love. It doesn't play by your rules; it gives no reason for you to put any expectations on it. It just exists as it is." Michele smiled at her co-star's words saying, "Love is a journey, and you choose to do life with someone, whether they're your friend, your family or your partner in crime, and you go through the highs and the lows. You choose to love them through everything. I guess you just have to make sure you choose the right person."
Love Is__ premieres Tuesday, June 19, at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.