NAACP Image Awards: Marsai Martin Reveals "No Black Pain" Project Rule

Marsai Martin_embed - Getty - EMBED 2019
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Beautycon

Marsai Martin at Beautycon 2019 in New York 

The actress and producer, who picked up two wins at this year's ceremony, discusses what she's looking for in future projects and recognition for Black art in 2021.

Marsai Martin took home two prizes from the 2021 NAACP Image Awards: outstanding performance by a youth (series, special, television movie or limited series) and outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for her role in Black-ish. The 16-year-old actress and producer has quickly built an impressive resume, including starring in and exec producing 2019's Little, and is currently developing the Disney Channel comedy pilot Saturdays, about a teenage girl battling sickle cell anemia while also competitive roller skating.

Following her Image Award wins, Martin spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about awards' meaning in 2021, her "no Black pain" project rule and her pandemic lessons.

What do these two awards mean to you? 

They mean a lot to me, mostly because I have been to the Image Awards for quite a long time and I think just every single year, I feel so much love and support from everyone. These two awards, I mean, the best supporting actress in a comedy series, it has all my favorite people in it — Yvonne Orji, Natasha Rothwell, Jenifer Lewis, who I work with all the time. Having amazing funny Black queens to be inspired by and being in the same category as them is so amazing and so inspiring, and I'm just honored just to be in a group of amazing women. Then also the youth one, I mean, they're my friends! And I love their work and [we're] just some Black kids trying to do their craft and following the footsteps of the mentors that we have seen. It's truly amazing and they inspire me as well to keep moving forward. It makes me feel more comfort knowing that it's not just me running in the same lane, it's a bunch of us trying to get to where we want to be. It's amazing to be in that circle as well, and I'm grateful.

Is this NAACP ceremony particularly meaningful given the racial reckoning and discourse that’s surrounded this year?

This is what we need, every single year is what we need. But from the uncertainty this past year has given us, it kind of puts us on a loop like it's an up and down, like what's-gonna-happen-next type thing. This is something that we need, this is something that just brings us back to reality. It just gives us a night to appreciate us. I mean, we appreciate us every single day, but a time where we give everyone the recognition that everyone needs at this moment.

This show is going on amid the backdrop of the Hollywood Foreign Press' being called out for not having any Black members and a historic year of Oscar nominations. What do you see as the importance of awards and who is getting recognized and who isn’t? 

We don't need awards to know how valuable a person is. It's amazing to get the recognition and the love from all of these big ceremonies and stuff but I mean, we don't need awards to tell us if we're good or not. If the Oscars or whoever are not giving us any recognition or being diverse as much as they need or anyone's opinion, it doesn't really matter to me. We're in a system that wasn't created for us and it is what it is. We just keep moving forward, we keep doing what we love, we keep inspiring the people that are watching, and hopefully it goes from there. I'm not basing my success on any trophies or awards because it doesn't matter at the end of the day.

You’re producing a new show Saturdays for Disney Channel, which focuses on a teen with sickle cell anemia — why are those stories you’re passionate about telling?

We've been working on it for quite a while now. I've always wanted to have just a cool activity that like us Black people love — like everyone loves it but the aesthetic of roller skating is just amazing and it just doesn't get the recognition that it needs. I just wanted to shine a light on it. Then also, 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. We're just bringing back the Disney Channel era that I grew up watching with That's So Raven and Good Luck Charlie, the shows that I love, and I wanted to bring that back in a way where everyone can watch it, not just the kids, but the family. It's our humor; I'm excited for it.

What are you looking for in projects you want to produce? 

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. I know a lot of people don't like the word "authentic," but I just love real stories that people can resonate with, even when it doesn't resonate with you personally but you know a friend who's dealt with that or families. And I love a good plot twist because it gets me every time, just something that is real and something that you can grow up watching, tell your kid's kids about it and just having those moments because I mean, I love old school stuff. I'm an old soul, so I grew up watching the films that my grandma was watching. So having something like that to where my kid's kids can watch something and still love it is something that I want to do.

What's been your biggest takeaway from the past year? 

Not to regret anything. Nothing that I did in the past, like before 2020, but like just as small as not going out or like taking a walk or going to say hi to an old friend, just stuff like that. Making sure when everything gets back to normal, or somewhat normal, we get to just live life the way that we want to and just not care. I felt like we cared about so much stuff that didn't matter now that it's gone. So just living life, that's something that I miss and that was the biggest takeaway. Also, mental health is a big thing. That's what I've learned is it's so, so big in going through the ups and downs that I've been through and FaceTiming my friends and seeing what they're going through. It's just checking up on your friends, making sure everyone is good. I was really bad at checking up on people, mostly because I was busy and then I'd like "Oh, I'll text them or call them" and I never did. I feel like everyone goes through that, but just making sure that we check on our loved ones because really, we don't know what people are going through. It can be your closest friend and they have the ups and downs that they're not telling anyone. So I say not regret anything and making sure you check up on the people that you love.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.