As the final season of Black-ish airs, Martin sets her sights on shaping a new world for the next generation.
Marsai Martin has always been a performer. As a toddler, she would sit in front of the TV, watching and memorizing the lines from her favorite films. Her mother, Carol, realized this was special for a child who could barely walk, and so began recording Marsai as she mimicked the actors, reciting their scripts, line by line. But it wasn’t until after Marsai took an interest in Ray, the musical biopic based on Ray Charles’s life, that Carol began to fully grasp just how gifted her daughter was. “She played every actor in that film,” Carol proudly tells me. “She knew that movie backwards and forwards, all the music, all of the scenes.” She was three years old.
In 2013, when she was nine, her family left their Texas home and moved to Los Angeles to pursue Martin’s acting career. Less than a year later, she landed her first major role, as Diane Johnson on Black-ish. Diane quickly became a fan favorite thanks to her brutal honesty, smart clapbacks, and myriad schemes with her twin brother, Jack (Miles Brown). In 2014, Vanity Fair named Diane one of the 15 Best New TV Characters. Martin’s portrayal has won her numerous NAACP Image Awards, BET awards, and a spot on TIME’s 2018 list of most influential teens.
In early December, I meet Marsai and her mother for a photoshoot in Los Angeles. When I arrive, I find her standing in front of a mirror, phone in hand, beaming with excitement. As the makeup team applies their finishing touches, she bumps an endless stream of hip-hop hits, bouncing and dancing in her chair. When she walks onto the set and the camera starts clicking, she doesn’t waste a single shot. Carol, just out of frame, is hyping her up from the sidelines. Martin’s electric energy sets the mood for the room. She raises everyone’s spirits; posing, dancing, and singing with the confidence of someone who has fully realized their power.
At 17, Martin is already a multi-hyphenate. In 2019 she became the youngest executive producer in Hollywood history for her work on Little, a film starring Issa Rae, Regina Hall, and Martin about an overbearing boss who is body swapped into the child version of themselves. Martin shined in her first major film role. She showed impressive range, playing an adult in a child’s body with uncanny precision and fully flexing her comedic talents. Little grossed $48 million worldwide, solidifying Martin’s status as both a savvy producer and star.
Martin says that calling the shots as an executive producer was difficult at first, but once the initial nerves wore off, the excitement kicked in. “In the acting world, I get to ask about my lines or if I can change it up a little bit,” she tells me. “But when it came to Little and now the other projects that I'm working on, it's more of, how do I like this lighting or this camera angle? Or do I change another person's line or someone's wardrobe? So it's a totally different world.”
The industry’s glass ceiling for Black girls begins and ends with tokenization. After finding “the one,” a production will often not hire any other Black girls. Marsai and her mother knew this and decided to do something about it. “Once she booked Black-ish and got a chance to be a part of showing the next generation a Black family in an affluent setting, it gave her this push,” Carol tells me. “She knew this one opportunity was there for her, but once she got that space, then what was left for anybody else?” When Black-ish went on hiatus in 2017, Marsai and her parents used the moment to start Genius Entertainment.
Representation is a crucial part of Martin’s work, and through Genius she is able to create the change she wants to see and highlight the issues her generation cares about, as well as help other Black girls pursue roles that don’t pigeonhole or stereotype them. Martin created for herself the opportunities she was denied and, as impressive as that is, it highlights a systemic failure in the industry, one she is clearly conscious of. “The more that we create content and projects that push the narrative of what we want to say with a message behind it,” she says, “then it will spread to wider audiences around the world.”
When Martin talks about the broader entertainment industry — particularly our current nostalgia-laden moment — she doesn’t pull any punches. “I feel like we are kind of in this loop of doing the same stuff all the time,” she says. “And I think when we have guys doing the same stuff over and over again, it's frickin’ recycling.” But Martin is optimistic about her contemporaries and the future they will build. “My peers and girls my age? We are pushing the narrative. We are trying to change the game and make people see that there are totally different stories to be told and so many different voices to be heard. Behind the camera and wardrobe, or hair and makeup, there are things that need to be changed and I think this generation knows that.”
Martin is already a driving force behind those changes, hard at work on the world she wants to build for young Black creators. She describes her universe in a visual way, similar to a Pinterest board with different aesthetics that showcase the variety of Black life. In this world, Black girls are seen for every one of their unique talents and granted humanity and total autonomy. “With my films, it's more about creating a vibe and building something that is probably weirder than anyone has seen before, yet so relatable. Giving those types of feelings that make you create your own world and make you feel. I want to make people feel.”
Black girls are often cornered and stereotyped, but especially for someone like Martin, who has been in the public eye for much of her life, the overfamiliarity and preconceived notions of who she is can be limiting. “When people have watched you grow up for so long, you feel stuck in that space because they only see you as one type of thing or one person or character. It’s pretty tough to navigate, she says. “It's a bit nerve-wracking, but I honestly wouldn't change it for the world because of the amazing support system that has helped me along the way and my amazing parents.”
Martin describes herself as an “old soul” and doesn’t let petty social media drama distract her from what truly matters: the work. When she presented the BET award for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist to Megan Thee Stallion in 2020, she was criticized online for her wig and dress. She responded with a one-minute video on Instagram, fake-crying into a $100 bill before quickly changing her tone: “Y’all, we are in quarantine, and we got more things to focus on than just my hair. Justice for Breonna Taylor.”
As Martin continues to work in front of and behind the camera, building the universe she wants to see, she is learning from those around her. When she speaks about her co-stars on Black-ish, whom she describes as family, Martin says that they helped her realize the kind of environment she wanted to cultivate on her sets. “With Anthony [Anderson] I learned, for example, to be open with everyone. I mean that man knows every single person on that set. First name, last name, and when their birthday is,” she says. “He is very kind and compassionate and made it such a lovable set.”
With the farewell season of Black-ish airing now, this won’t be the last we see of Martin. She has a lot on her plate, from producing an adaptation of the novel Amari and the Night Brothers to starring in and producing a comedy film titled StepMonster, and executive producing a comedy series titled Saturdays for Disney Channel. Martin is also a tastemaker, starring in Remix My Space, a new room makeover series on Disney+, and founding a nail care line called Mari set to launch in February.
“I’m a Leo and I like money and traveling and doing things that make me happy,” Martin tells me when I ask what drives her to work. As she winds down from a long day of shooting, she’s reflective about what’s next, and her ability to create the future she wants. “I believe manifestation is a real thing. When you truly want something and God is listening, which he always is, you kind of just got to go for it from there.” Martin shows us that demands for representation are also futile — instead of asking for a seat at the table, she created her own, and her journey in the industry led her to create roles for other Black girls instead of fighting for the few roles that were offered.
Watching her on set confirms that this drive doesn’t only come from her internal confidence but the support system she has around her. As she switched out of looks, she belted along to Silk Sonic and Brent Faiyaz, the sound of her voice rising faintly above the music. She danced in between takes. At the end of the shoot, wiping off a day’s worth of makeup, she was still in high spirits. I ask Carol if her daughter has musical ambitions. “Before she was even a year old, she would hum the instrumentation of the song and I was like, oh, wow. She had a really good pitch. There are videos I used to record on YouTube if people choose to go search them,” she says proudly. Carol says that Martin even recorded some music in the studio, but ultimately decided she wasn’t ready, a move Carol attributes to her daughter's perfectionism rather than a lack of ability. “I think she wants to do music again. But I think she's really nervous about, like, what genre? What do I sing about? Are people going to connect to it? But it is a talent that she has.”
When I ask Martin if she will ever pursue a music career, she says “I don't have any plans at the moment,” and then, “But, you know, plans change.”
“I know my potential,” Martin says. “Showing people what I can do is my main motivation.” Some people need to convince themselves to dance and sing like no one’s watching, but when Martin sings and dances, she knows everyone is watching.
Stylist: Bryon Javar
Makeup: Joanna Simkin
Hair: Alexander Armand
Executive Producer: Shanté Cosme
Executive Producer: Spike Jordan
Executive Producer: Mike Prieto
Producer: Jami Arceo
Production Designer: Taylor Almodovar
Production Company: The Genius Club
Bookings: Dan Resnick