Let’s go back in time, shall we? The year is 1997 and Debra Martin Chase, along with her producing partners Whitney Houston, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have decided that the hottest young star would be cast in their remake of the classic fairy tale, Cinderella. That star: a beautiful, brown skinned girl named Brandy Norwood. She and her Prince, the equally handsome and brown Filipino actor Paolo Montalban. Houston, then a global superstar, would portray the Fairy Godmother. Chase knew she was taking a bold risk, but she knew Hollywood would come around and see the genius in diverse casting.
Today, colorblind casting is almost the norm because of hit shows like Bridgerton, Broadway musicals such as Hamilton and SIX and British dramas such as Anne Boleyn and Persuasion. However, that doesn’t mean all audiences gleefully accept when a historical, literary or beloved character gets altered. Last September, Disney released the teaser trailer for the live action adaptation of Little Mermaid. Halle Bailey, who had been cast as Ariel, was resplendent in reddish-brown locs as she sang underneath the sea.
But the singer-turned-actress received an onslaught of racial backlash. Why? The unified criticism: Halle doesn’t look like the cartoon version (white with red hair and blue eyes), which for many was their introduction to the character. Haters even created a hashtag: #NotMyAriel. But many fans of the children’s classic and Bailey know how important representation matters. A louder, celebratory reaction from videos of little Black girls being mesmerized at the reveal of Bailey singing “Part of Your World” quieted the noise from the trolls.
Chase knows all too well when short-sighted naysayers don’t embrace the reality of diverse casting. “I remember people said, ‘This is never going to work. People are never going to accept a Black queen and a white king and a Filipino son,’’ remembers the producer, who would go on to see her gamble become one of the highest-rated TV movies ever. “I don’t want to say her name. She’s someone prominent in another industry and she was just like, ‘Honey, this is not going to work. People are just not going to accept this.’ And we just saw it. We believed in it.”
That success cemented Chase as the godmother of colorblind casting and put her at the forefront of boundary-pushing film and television. A year before Cinderella, the lawyer-turned-producer made history as the first Black woman to produce a film that grossed more than $100 million (1996’s Courage Under Fire). She would go on to break other barriers as the first African American woman producer to secure a major studio deal. Chase has been behind some of Hollywood’s most treasured titles: The Preacher’s Wife, The Princess Diaries, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The Cheetah Girls.
Even with all of Chase’s big and small screen success, she’s had a love/hate relationship with Hollywood. “Eight years ago, I was ready to quit the business because nobody was interested in telling stories about people of color, women of color or women. Their eyes were glazed over when you went in to pitch stuff. I found myself just throwing stuff up against the wall,” she says. The industry had fallen back into its familiar trappings that only white, male stars made money in film and TV.
This wasn’t heresy: The New York Times, citing the Annenberg Foundation 2016 study on Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative, reported that “92 percent of top film directors were men and 86 percent of top films featured white actors in the lead roles.” The report came a year after April Reign tweeted #OscarsSoWhite, which shined an overdue spotlight on the elephant in Hollywood rooms. Swift changes were made throughout the industry—more Blacks and women were inducted into the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences, and top talent were encouraged to add inclusion riders to their contracts—to course-correct decades of blatant racism, sexism and gender bias.
Seven years later, empowered Hollywood creatives are still demanding change. Last June, during the Cannes Lions Festival, actress and producer Issa Rae said she has a “mandate that her sets are 60 percent diverse” and has created a “pipeline” for more inclusivity in behind the scenes roles within the entertainment industry, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Networks are making significant strides too. “CBS used to be the worst on the diversity front. The worst,” says Chase of the TV home of her series, The Equalizer. “George Cheeks is now the CEO—a Black man. CBS has become one of the most progressive networks. They’re requiring 40 percent of the writers’ rooms to be diverse. The message is very, very clear that diversity is critically important to the CBS brand today, and that George has spearheaded that and it’s been fabulous.”
There are more increases in diverse casting as well. According to UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report 2022, “In 2020-21, people of color collectively reached or exceeded proportionate representation among the main cast… Most of these gains for people of color can be attributed to the increasing shares of Black and multiracial persons in top roles.”
Years ago Chase made sure more Black women were brought to the table and one of her hires has upended the old boys club in Hollywood. “When I was running Denzel Washington’s company [Mundy Lane], we’d had a couple of good white interns from USC. I called over there and I’m like, ‘Look, you have to have [someone else]... I want a great Black student. There’s a good opportunity here and you have to have somebody—and I want somebody great.’ And that was Shonda Rhimes, who became my intern. I helped her get her first paid writing job, which actually was on the Hank Aaron documentary. And then she wrote three movies for me, including Princess Diaries 2.”
Is it safe to say what Rhimes learned as an intern shaped her choices on centering her characters regardless of race? Who knows. But Chase sees the connection. “It’s been, what, 20 years in between Cinderella and Bridgerton? And it took another Black woman to pick up on what had been enormously successful to make something that was as, if not more, successful. There’s a definite lineage between the two.”
In fact, it was mega success of Rhimes that gave Chase faith in Hollywood again. “[They] realized that diversity is not just the right thing to do; it’s good business. Once [executives] realized that they were leaving money on the table, then the floodgates opened up,” says Chase from New York City, where she splits her time as producer. “It really started in television with Grey’s Anatomy, which in retrospect, is great casting, but more diverse than usual. Then Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder; [with Scandal], Kerry Washington was the second Black woman to be the lead of an hour-long network drama ever. Then Empire was, at the time, the most successful new show in like a decade. And everybody’s like, ‘Okay. We see we’ve been leaving money on the table.’
But Chase isn’t in this business for the money. What motivates her is telling diverse, untapped stories. “We’ve made the shift in our society from years ago where people just accepted that they weren’t going to be represented in media in the things that they watched, to now where people are like, ‘If I don’t see somebody that I can relate to, I’m not interested,’” says Chase. “Hollywood understands that and we will continue to see more diversity in front of and behind the camera.”