Debra Martin Chase on blazing trails for Black Hollywood: ‘I had a vision’

The executive producer of 'The Equalizer' dropped facts on theGrio's 'Acting Up' podcast

Debra Martin Chase has been quietly making history in Hollywood for decades and the trailblazing executive sat down with theGrio‘s Cortney Wills on this week’s episode of theGrio’s Acting Up podcast. 

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The awe-inspiring producer behind powerful projects like Harriet and Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella is currently hard at work executive producing The Equalizer, reuniting her with longtime friend and collaborator, Queen Latifah. 

The woman who helmed Denzel Washington’s production company Mundy Lane Entertainment and held the reigns at Whitney Houston’s BrownHouse Productions also spoke about giving Shonda Rhimes her first paid writing gig and how she managed to take such big risks when it came to her contribution to changing representation in Hollywood. 

“I had a vision. I realized that I have a voice and I had something to say to the extent that when I got to Hollywood, there were very few people who looked like me. I’ve had a career, a successful career as a lawyer so I had some confidence in my vision and in my voice when I got here,” Martin-Chase says. “I just knew from being in the world and from my perspective, that these stories could resonate with people.”

BET Presents The 51st NAACP Image Awards - Red Carpet
Debra Martin Chase attends the 51st NAACP Image Awards on February 22, 2020 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET)

She also revealed how her super successful The Cheetah Girls franchise almost didn’t make it to the screen. 

“I knew that there was an audience that was dying for The Cheetah Girls. That had never been done before with these girls of color, who were proud of who they were but, you know, didn’t grow up in the projects; who wanted to be stars and speak languages and travel the world,” she explains. 

“I developed that for the Disney Channel originally as a television series, and at that time, television series had to be approved by the international divisions. And when they sent out the script, the international divisions came back and said, ‘Oh, we can’t sell this. This is not real. Nobody’s going to buy that these brown and Black girls are living on Park Avenue and kind of fancy.’ I was so pissed off.”

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So many projects Martin Chase has worked on have made a huge impact on the kinds of stories we are able to tell onscreen. 

“I fought really hard for most things that I’ve done, but I I believed in them and I believed that there would be an audience for them,” she adds.

The executive producer behind The Equalizer also revealed how she helped Washington make a big move for representation back in 1993. That year, Washington starred in two roles that were never intended for Black actors – The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia. 

 “If you want to go back to the Denzel days, I did not produce Philadelphia, but Tri-Star, they were putting together Philadelphia and I remember having lunch with the executive and saying like, ‘Well, why can’t the lawyer be Black?’

And he was like, ‘Well, it wasn’t written Black. And I was like, ‘Well, let’s just walk through this for a minute. Like, what does he do in this movie that would be different if he were Black? And at the end, the guy was like, ‘Oh, I never really thought about it like this.’ It was just basic casting was an issue, right? So those were some of his battles,” she recounted.

“I can also remember when he did Pelican Brief with Julia Roberts and it was a big deal. It was [her] come back. She had been America’s darling and taking a break. It was a John Grisham book and she wanted him as her co-star. Warner Brothers was really hesitant about having a Black man, you know, costar with America’s sweetheart.

And she basically gave them an ultimatum and gave them like 24 hours to get their act together and make a deal or she was walking and that’s how it ended up happening. But they still took their revenge because if you look at a lot of the one-sheets, it’s Julia and John Grisham, and he’s here in the corner.”

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For more with Martin Chase and her work on The Equalizer, check out this week’s episode of Acting Up. Additional guests include Lexi Underwood and Mitzi Miller who weigh in on how representation in kids content affects Black children and families.

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