When Debra Martin Chase began her career in entertainment, the landscape was quite different than it is today. The Harvard Law graduate left her life as a successful attorney behind and set out on a mission to change the images we saw onscreen. Now, after 30 years in the business, she’s one of the most important Black women in Hollywood and she continues to pave the way for those who dare to follow.
“I had a mission to increase diversity onscreen and offscreen and I understood the impact that changing the images we see would have on people of color and on everyone. In those times that I felt like I was beating my head against the wall, I knew that if I was successful it would make a difference,” she says.
As a producer of Harriet, she’s currently enjoying her latest Oscar-nominated success story and running Martin Chase Productions, the company she founded in 2000.
We caught up with this dynamic powerhouse to find out how she managed to move the needle so significantly and to get her take on what’s next for Black women in Hollywood.
“I was watching ‘The Fugitive’ and that’s a great film but there is no color in the movie. It’s an all-white movie. That struck me because you can’t make a movie like that anymore. It’s outdated just by the images in the movie and that is a huge accomplishment. We were so conditioned to just accept that we weren’t a part of those worlds and that’s the power of images. That’s why I got into this business. We take it for granted that we see doctors and lawyers and good guys and bad guys of all ethnicities and walks of life in these stories now.”
Debra Martin Chase spent four years running Denzel Washington’s production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment, where she executive produced the Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing The Dream.
In 1995, she joined forces with Whitney Houston and headed up her production company, Brown House Productions and worked with the late superstar on several projects including The Preacher’s Wife, Cinderella, and Sparkle.
“I was Whitney’s producing partner for five years. I had run Denzel’s company for four years and during that time I started developing ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ which became ‘The Preachers Wife.’ Whitney signed on early on and I got to know her and her team,” she recalls. “They were really wanting to start a company and take her acting career to the next level. We ended up partnering and it was really great. I adored her and it still hurts what happened.”
In 1997, she produced Disney’s groundbreaking Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Brandy Norwood, Whitney Houston, and Whoopi Goldberg. The film garnered more than 60 million viewers when it debuted on The Wonderful World of Disney and earned seven Emmy nominations and remains one of her crowning achievements.
“Going way back to having a Black Cinderella that women and girls and boys could look to and say, ‘This is the standard of beauty’ was hugely important to me,” she says. “It was so groundbreaking. It’s so representative of everything that I came to Hollywood to do. I know what that would have meant for me as a girl to see a Black Cinderella and so that was a huge driver. The colorblind casting was unheard of and everybody gave us such a hard time but we were determined. We just linked arms and said ‘We’re gonna do this’ and we just fought the system and got it done and it was this huge hit.”
She also has a soft spot for The Preacher’s Wife.
“The Preacher’s Wife was very important to me because it was really one of the first modern, studio movies that had two major Black stars and an all-star cast and that just wasn’t done in those days,” she explains. “That was a big deal.”
Debra Martin Chase went on to produce a long list of mainstream hits including The Princess Diaries, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and The Cheetah Girls, always staying true to her mission of diversifying the images that permeated pop culture. That mission included helping other Black women make their mark behind the scenes and one such example happens to be Shonda Rhimes who credits Martin Chase for launching her career.
“The full story with Shonda [Rhimes] is I was running Denzel’s company and I had one or two white interns from USC’s graduate program. I called somebody in the administration and said, ‘I know you must have a Black student in the program you can send me. I want your superstar’ and they sent me Shonda. It was pretty clear immediately that she was special. She has reminded me that I gave her the first paid writing job on the Hank Aaron documentary. She went on to write three movies for me including ‘Princess Diaries 2’,” she says.
Despite her commitment to her mission and a long list of successes in the industry, Debra Martin Chase admits there have been times that she felt defeated.
“About five years ago I wanted to give up because people were not making products about women or people of color. I felt like I was throwing stuff up against the wall and not believing in the way that I needed to in the things I was doing. I had spent a year intensely working on a ‘Dirty Dancing’ remake with my dear friend Kenny Ortega and it fell apart at the very last minute for political reasons and it was devastating. I thought maybe it was time to do something else,” she recalls.
“I realized I needed to reboot and re-orient myself in the business. It was time to take a step back because everything had changed around me. After that, things started to shift and open up and Hollywood started to understand that diversity was good business and all of a sudden I found myself transitioning feeling like I was outside the business to feeling like I was right in the middle of it and here I am.”
Debra Martin Chase continues to knock down doors when it comes to representation for women of color in Tinseltown and her latest deal, (the upcoming reboot of The Equalizer starring Queen Latifah) is a prime example.
“What’s interesting about ‘The Equalizer’ is that it’s a person who is very grounded. The equalizer is a vigilante for the good guys. It’s someone who cares deeply about justice, about equality, about helping people, who can kick ass and who garners the respect of everybody and that’s Queen Latifah,” she says.
Although there has been a huge shift when it comes to representation in Hollywood, Martin Chase recognizes there’s still more work to be done.
“I’ve been in this business forever. This is the best it has ever been for people of color in the business and we still have a way to go for sure. What it really boils down to is Hollywood finally realized that diverse stories and diverse images onscreen are good business. For years we have been saying it’s the right thing to do, but once they realized it’s good business, the doors opened and now the demand for content is so great,” she says.
“I think we need more Black decision-makers at the film studios. It has gotten better, especially on the TV side, but when you look at the heads of the networks there’s not a lot of diversity there,” she continues. “Nicole Brown just became head of Tristar. That’s huge. She has paid her dues to get there but she’s an anomaly.”
Debra Martin Chase credits her determination for much of her success, but her foundation played a significant role as well.
“It helped me that I had a life outside of Hollywood. I was a lawyer for many years and I have tons of friends outside of the business so my whole life and sense of self-worth was not tied up in Hollywood,” she explains. “I have great friends and a great supportive family. That was really important.”