No Black Pain Projects: Marsai Martin Creates Space for Joy

Black actors settling for trauma roles should be a thing of the past

Photo: Marsai Martin/Getty Images

After winning two NAACP Image Awards this past year, Marsai Martin recently turned heads in an interview. When asked what type of projects she wanted to produce next, she made it clear. She would say no to any “Black pain projects.” Even at 16, the star recognizes her power and has no qualms about wielding it on and off the set.

Martin may be young, but she’s nobody’s rookie. In short order, she became a household name by starring in ABC’s hit series black-ish. Then she broke a world record by becoming the youngest executive producer in Hollywood history.

She earned that accolade by acting in and producing the 2019 smash hit Little. In the film, she plays an adult executive who turns into a teen because of a child’s wish. The executive, played by Regina Hall, needs to get in touch with her inner child. After some reluctance, she gives in and becomes stronger from the experience. Issa Rae plays her supportive assistant. As a combo, this trilogy of Black actors will make you double over in laughter.

Martin holds several NAACP Image Awards. Photo: Getty Images

Little was a feel-good movie. Not only did Martin break a glass ceiling, but her performance also made Hollywood ask why this ceiling ever existed. Seeing a Black teen, not just on the screen but in a leadership role, shows the power of representation.

As a Hollywood heavyweight, Martin’s decision to decline Black pain projects emphasizes quality over all else. It’s not enough for Martin to be cast or to have writers pitch ideas. She only accepts projects that line up with her values.

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As she told the Hollywood Reporter:

I have a couple of rules when you come into my office. When you come into my office, don’t give me this — I don’t do no Black pain. If it’s Black pain I don’t go for it because there’s so many films and projects about that, so that’s not who I am. I want to make sure that it is diverse and real in its own way.

Black pain projects have become run-of-the-mill. Yet, these films still manage to largely depict Black people in roles that diminish the diversity of Black experiences. Slave films based in the antebellum period have become commonplace. And when Hollywood doesn’t show Black people as slaves, they show us struggling through the Jim Crow era. Too often, series and movies depict life in the “’hood.” Those films almost always end in tragedy.

There are two ways we can potentially look at these projects. On one hand, historical movies like 12 Years a Slave are essential. Learning about the lives of enslaved Black people makes past injustices plain to see. Likewise, learning about the horrors of the Jim Crow era can help to influence and educate the public. On the other hand, narrow interpretations of Blackness can have an adverse impact.

Black people have diverse experiences and perspectives. When Hollywood fails to capture this diversity, people are left with a one-dimensional view of Blackness. Being Black isn’t all about pain, poverty, and injustice. During the Great Depression, my great-grandmother owned a store. She gave credits to poor White families so they could afford groceries. People don’t typically hear stories like hers because of stereotypical representations. Martin saying no to Black pain projects is revolutionary because it ensures the future of diverse Black projects.

Many Black women play roles they don’t vibe with in order to further their careers. Viola Davis, for example, regrets playing in The Help because “it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.” Octavia Spencer said 90% of the roles offered to her after filming The Help were maid roles: “The archetypes that they really want to see — a woman of zaftig stature and a cute, little Cheshire cat grin — is the nurturer or the sassy whatever.”

Spencer’s right. Hollywood loves depicting Black women in stereotypical roles. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how society as a whole views us. Martin saying no to these roles in advance sets a new standard. Her leadership is sure to leave a mark. Selling Black pain projects to a new generation of Black actresses will be difficult. That’s a good thing.

Putting pressure on the industry to pitch a more diverse set of stories makes space for joy. Black people want to see themselves in more happy endings and less tragic ones. That’s understandable. The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Living Single gave us diverse storylines. We saw Black families from across the socioeconomic spectrum. And they didn’t center around Black pain.

Currently, Martin is working on a new Disney show named Saturdays. The protagonist of her new series will be a Black teenager with sickle cell anemia. That’s a character America is not used to seeing. The series will explore the world of Black rollerskaters, which brings back retro vibes. As Martin told the Hollywood Reporter:

Sickle cell is a very big thing in our Black community, it tackles us the most. It’s never been seen on TV or film before so I wanted to make sure this was a moment to shine a light on it — in not a bad way because we don’t do Black pain, but to where our main character is still celebrated, still loved and lives her life the way that she wants to. It’s just very fun and very exciting.

One thing we know for sure, Martin took Hollywood by storm. She’s a talented producer and actress who’s made quite a name for herself. Before 16, she made history and continues to win awards, paving the way for a diverse future.

Her personality bubbles over with confidence, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Saying no to Black pain projects paves the way for joy. It’s a rejection of stereotypical representation. By demanding more, she provides an excellent example for other young creatives. Black creatives have the power, and they can decide which projects they work on and support.

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