Debra Martin Chase is one of the most influential women in television and film, and she has been quietly effecting change in the industry for decades.
The 63-year-old from Great Lakes, Ill., has made Hollywood history several times over and carved out her own road to success by employing the hard work and tenacity that made her such a promising attorney. Her passion for film and confidence in her own potential eventually took her down a different path.
The Harvard Law School alum switched gears from a career in law, essentially starting from the bottom as an executive assistant to Frank Price, chairman of Columbia Pictures.
“I think for me, images are so important,” said Chase. “I got into this business because I didn't see myself or people who looked like me very much in film and television.”
Chase went on to run Denzel Washington’s Mundy Lane Entertainment from 1992-1995. There, she executive produced Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, an Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary that won the Peabody Award.
She also headed up Whitney Houston’s Brown House Productions from 1995-2000. She produced a multicultural version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Houston, Brandy and Whoopi Goldberg. The TV movie earned seven Emmy nominations and one win.
Eventually Chase established her own production company, Martin Chase Productions. She was affiliated with Disney from 2001-2016, making history as the first African-American producer to score a deal with a major studio. Chase now has a deal with Universal.
The long list of super successful projects under her belt have made huge impressions on mainstream Hollywood, and includes some of the most popular titles of the time.
Those projects inlcude films such as The Princess Diaries, The Preacher’s Wife, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and The Cheetah Girls, Just Wright and Sparkle, among others.
They’re also reflective of the executive’s mission toward representation.
“I remember sitting down with a studio executive at TriStar when I was running Denzel’s company and kind of walking him through why it would be OK for Denzel to play the lawyer in Philadelphia,” remembered Chase. “There was no reason that a Black man couldn't be in that role, and it was like a revelation. It used to be everybody assumed that if it wasn’t written as a Black or Latino, or Asian role that, you know, you weren't going to even think about that casting. Those are the battles I have been fighting for a long time.”
That fight is far from over, and Chase continues to make huge strides when it comes to pushing the boundaries of representation. For example, she negotiated a deal at CBS that will have Queen Latifah starring in a reboot of The Equalizer.
Her latest film, Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo, who received two Academy Award nominations for the role, chronicles the life and work of one of the greatest American heroes. Chase has been inspired by some of her own real-life heroes, such as renowned civil rights activist, Vernon Jordan.
“I have known Vernon Jordan since I was 18 years old and I have the utmost respect and admiration for him,” she says. “He has been a revolutionary, and he has been a very good friend to me over the years, which I greatly appreciate.”
Chase is hoping people are inspired by Harriet and what it offers when it comes to pushing through even when the circumstances seem insurmountable.
“There's so much going on in our country and in our society right now and we are seeing that reflected in the projects, whether it's television or movies,” said Chase, noting that like Harriet Tubman, “we can make a difference. We have a voice and we have to use it. We have to stand up for what’s right.”
— Cortney Wills