"I grew up never seeing myself in the movies — my mission has been to change that,” Debra Martin Chase says.
For Three Decades Debra Martin Chase Has Blazed Trails in Hollywood. Now She’s Putting Herself Above the Title in Her Own Life, Essence magazine writes.
“I grew up never seeing myself in the movies — my mission has been to change that,” declares television and film producer Debra Martin Chase as she sits in a booth at an Upper West Side eatery, looking impeccable in spite of just having landed from L.A. on the night of a full-blown New York City snowstorm. Called the first African-American woman to garner a production deal at a major studio (Disney), she carries herself with the self-assurance one would expect from a 30-year show business veteran (The Princess Diaries 1 and 2, The Preacher’s Wife, The Cheetah Girls movies, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 1 and 2) who has not merely survived but prevailed, paving a stellar and unconventional path in an industry not known for its warm welcome of women of color. Chase is dressed in her signature mash-up of bourgeois propriety meets Boho bold—in this case a classic cashmere turtleneck paired with leather-accented Alexander Wang jodhpurs. The Harvard Law School-educated former attorney is eager to talk about maintaining sanity in an ever-changing field; the new golden age of Black film and television; and her latest passion project, an action film about Harriet Tubman that Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo of the recent The Color Purple revival just signed on to star in.
When asked how she manages to stay relevant in a business forever evolving at technology’s lightning speed, Chase answers with the unhesitant clarity of a self-help guru: “Pacing, balance and remaining open.” That philosophy was honed over three decades of working first within the studio system and then as an independent producer. It was recently reinforced for her during a session in a “sweat shop”—which, contrary to its name, is not a badly ventilated factory manned by underpaid youth but rather a twenty-first-century L.A. spa offering 55-minute sessions in
a thermal device — as she watched TED Talks. While decompressing and shedding impurities, Chase viewed a talk about the “learning zone and the performing zone.” “If you’re always in the performance zone, you’re not going to replenish and find what’s next. World-class athletes take a breath. The spirit needs to take moments to breathe. That’s pacing,” she explains. Five years ago, after a disappointing experience trying to reboot Dirty Dancing, and the tragic death of her former producing partner and close friend, Whitney Houston, she took a pause from film and turned her attention back to TV, just as it was beginning to welcome true diversity.
What sustains Chase through the inevitable valleys in a high-risk business is her unshakable faith. At low points, she’ll take time in the evenings to sit out on the patio of her L.A. home, look up at the sky and say, “I know you didn’t bring me this far to let me fail.” That prayer does not, however, take the place of action. “You are hustling, putting everything in motion, but you have to have faith,” she clarifies. “If you really want something and you put your mind to it, the universe will help you.”
It was Debra’s mother who gave her the courage to take what she calls “the calculated leap off a cliff,” trading in the stable career of a partner-tracked corporate attorney working at white-shoe law firms for the vagaries of the movie business. Raised from the ages of 6 to 15 in Pasadena, California, a stone’s throw from Hollywood, with future rock legend David Lee Roth as a school chum, Debra was a gifted student who danced on Soul Train on weekends and dreamed of a life of travel and adventure. When she was 12, her mother, Beverly Martin, and police sergeant father, Robert, divorced. Three years later, her mother packed the three children up and moved them to Massachusetts to pursue a graduate degree in early childhood education. While Debra felt confined in this rural, decidedly slow-paced setting, her mother’s daring taught her that “you could make choices and change your life—that there were other chapters.”
Chase’s entertainment industry chapter began when she was 28 and feeling lost. “It was the lowest point because nothing was working. I had no path. So I took some time. Let myself breathe. And that summer, I returned to work and ended up every night going home and watching movies. I watched everything I’d never seen. That became my education…. It’s taking time to hear your own voice. Hard to hear when you’re on the treadmill.” The power of American images had been impressed upon her while hitchhiking through Spain with a fellow Mount Holyoke graduate. “I realized that in the late 1970’s, pre-Internet, the only images the}- had of African-American women were of prostitutes and druggies,” she recalls.
She moved to New York City’ and terminated her marriage to Anthony Chase, a fellow Harvard Law School graduate and investment banker. After a few more years toiling in corporate law, Chase began to focus on her true dream: the movie business. She read all the “trades” and met with anyone even peripherally connected with the field. And then a chance encounter opened the door. “I was at Columbia Pictures to interview for a legal job, and I saw a memo on the desk about a program helping people transition from other professions.” She signed on for the two-year program that exposed her to all the key areas of the company. “I looked on it as graduate school,” she says of that time. “I lived off savings and then fumes.” In the program, she earned her first mentor, legendary studio head Frank Price, whom she describes as “the last of the old-school studio bosses, an artist, hands-on, involved with story.” He hired her as his assistant and then, when he was leaving the company, secured her a two-year deal as a creative executive for the studio.
“I felt like the lone Democrat in a Republican White House,” she recalls. The atmosphere was intensely political and “dog eat dog.” With her law degree, she felt she had a “fall back,” but she had to downplay her Harvard credentials to put others at ease. Once again, fate intervened to open a new door. While walking across the lot one day, she spotted Denzel Washington, who had just won his first Oscar in Glory. Chase introduced herself, and in short order, through the auspices of their mutual friend, director-producer Doug McHenry, became the head of his fledgeling production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment. Now she marvels at the fact that after Denzel’s historic Oscar nomination for Malcolm X, the phone failed to ring off the hook.
She happily speculates that times have very much changed and that, unlike the Black film renaissance of the early 1990’s, the current resurgence will prove more permanent. “At the time, the work only reflected one segment of the population,” she explains. “Television led the charge showing that diversity was good business. If the show is good, people of all backgrounds will tune in.” She believes that two of her current projects, Harriet and The Black Calhouns—an adaptation of Lena Horne’s daughter Gail Lumet Buckley’s history of her family after the Civil War and a chronicle of the rise of the Black bourgeoisie—would have been impossible to place a mere three years ago. The latter project was Channing Dungey’s first purchase when she took the reins at ABC, becoming the first African-American to run a major broadcast network. Chase can take a good deal of credit for the progress that has been made, both in terms of the images she has put on-screen through the years (from her Peabody Award-winning documentary on Hank Aaron to the first multiracial film production of Cinderella) and as the result of the women of color she has mentored behind the scenes. “If we don’t support each other, we’re not going to advance. The generation of women ahead of me was of the “I got mine, you get yours’ mentality. But that doesn’t create real advancement,” she says.
The proof of Chase’s commitment to the sisterhood lies in the reverence she inspires in Hollywood’s most successful 3–oung Black women. Kimberly Steward, Oscar-nominated producer of Manchester by the Sea, calls her “a glass ceiling breaker” and keeps her on speed dial when she needs words of wisdom. She credits Chase with shepherding her through the storm of attention that followed her nomination. “She said, ‘Stay true to yourself. It’s going to hit really hard. The best thing to do is keep your focus and stay true to the projects that you have and know. You’re going to get distracted. Keep doing what you’re doing. Have the same mindset for every single project you do and your authenticity will resonate.’ ”Steward also admires Chase’s remarkable negotiating ability, which she attributes to her training as a corporate lawyer who’s “used to going through several kinds of deals.” Sanaa Hamri, one of the few’ women of color working as a features director (Chase hired her for the 2010 romcom Just Wright), credits Chase with “empowering women and people of color always.” So too does actor Leonardo Nam, who has a breakout role in HBO’s Westworld. Chase fought hard for him to be cast in 2005’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Another devotee is Debra and Denzel’s former Mundy Lane intern Shonda Rhimes, who wrote via e-mail: “I was this bookish kid fresh out of New Hampshire. I thought women like Debra only existed in the pages of ESSENCE. She got me my first job as an assistant. She got me my second job as a research director on the Oscar-nominated documentary Hank Aaron. She brought me in to write The Princess Diaries 2, my first big studio film.” The undisputed queen of Thursday night added: “She was also willing to dive into difficult conversations. When I was screwing up or acting like a hot mess, Debra flat out told me that I was ruining my opportunities. ’’After decades of sowing, Chase can now reap the rewards of a career managed with integrity and grace. She splits her time between Los Angeles and New York City, where she sits on the board of the New York City Ballet and Second Stage Theatre. Chase has reached the stage where she owns her success and can share its secret: “Keep it moving forward. Stay positive. If things aren’t working, don’t dwell. Move toward the light. And I follow the ‘serenity prayer’: Have the patience to wait, the perseverance to push and the wisdom to know the difference.”