Marsai Martin’s portrayal of the precocious and witty Diane Johnson on ABC’s Black-ish has been brilliant since she premiered on the show in 2014. However, Martin has had her sights set on the big screen since the beginning. The Texas native was just ten years old when she approached Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Hollywood mega-producer Will Packer with an idea for her very own film — the body-swap comedy, Little.
“It was me, mommy, and daddy, we were actually talking about the movies that they’re watching back in the day,” she explained to Shadow and Act during a visit to the Little set on a hot day in July 2018. “One of my mom’s favorite movies growing up was Big. That’s where it all started and then we just started brainstorming and thinking about how it could be turned into a Black Girl Magic-type of situation.”
Will Packer remembered that meeting and what compelled him to back the film and subsequently pitch it to Universal. “It’s crazy, what were we doing when we were ten years old?!” the Night School producer said. “I could see the movie even back then. It’s interesting because it’s Hollywood, it takes time to get a movie going, and because she is on Black-ish we could only shoot during her hiatus which is a certain time every year. She pitched it when she was ten, so we tried to get it ready to hit her hiatus when she was 11, but the script wasn’t ready. We tried again when she was 12, but the actors we wanted —their availabilities didn’t line up. Then I was like ‘Yo! This is the last chance, she’s going to get too old and the movie won’t work.’ Fortunately, we got it done just in time and I’m glad because as a teen, she’s able to embody the character differently. It’s funnier now — it’s edgier.”
Little is a classic body-swap comedy that follows Jordan (Regina Hall) a fiercely independent tech executive who has a bit of a mean streak. On the eve of her company’s biggest pitch of the year— Jordan awakens as the 13-year-old version of herself (Martin) which forces her to deal with her insecurities and the incident that shaped who she is as an adult.
“When Jordan was a young child she was a nerd, and she was bullied,” Packer revealed. “She said, ‘When I grow up, I’m not going to let anybody bully me.’ Now, Big Jordan is a bully. She is mean to everybody; this is like The Devil Wears Prada. She acts this way because she is really insecure and she is running from that little nerd girl she used to be. What’s funny about this movie is having Marsai playing Regina. A lot of the dynamic is between Marsai’s character and Issa’s character April, who is Jordan’s assistant.”
Little Jordan is not simply another version of Martin’s Diane. “It’s different because this character has power,” Packer emphasized. “She is used to being the boss, and there is a bit of meanness to the Big Jordan. It’s different from Diane. It’s harsher. When she becomes Little Jordan, what Marsai has to do is the one thing she is afraid of, and that’s being stripped of her power. As soon as she’s 13 years old again it flips— her world upside down.”
Packer was drawn to the film and Martin’s idea not only because it was good, but because he wanted Black mothers and Black daughters to have something just for them at the box office. “We had not seen this movie with these people,” he explained, “We’d seen versions of this movie but never with someone who looked like Marsai, Regina Hall or Issa Rae. It’s just like when I made Girls Trip. You had seen different versions of movies with women having fun or “behaving badly,” but you had never seen brown girls doing what they do and being authentic to who they are. This movie is a universal theme and relatable to everybody, but it is very much through the lens and from the perspective of these characters. When I pitched the movie to Universal I said, ‘You don’t have a movie for mothers to take their daughters to, especially Black mothers and Black daughters, brown mothers and brown daughters. It doesn’t mean that it’s not also for white mothers and white daughters, but you do have a lot of Mama Mia’s and Pitch Perfects. I wanted my Girls Trip audience —that core audience— to have something to take their daughters to. I felt like that wasn’t out there.”
After getting the green light from Universal—Packer only had one actress in mind to play Big Jordan. “When the movie was first pitched, it was pitched with Regina in mind,” the Think Like A Man producer explained. “Regina and Marsai have the same manager who also is Kenya’s manager, so Regina was onboard very early on, and she’s been on set as an EP even when she’s not shooting. When you get an actor to step behind the camera, it’s really an asset for someone like me because I’ve never been an actor.”
Martin was also thrilled that she was able to reconnect with Hall who played Black Nanny on Black-ish even though they didn’t have any scenes together. “It is hilarious because it went from us being enemies to us being the same person in general,” the cheerful teen explained. “It’s very cool, Regina is very sweet. I’ve watched all her movies, and I’ve always looked up to her in that way. She gives the best hugs. I love her very much.”
As an executive producer along with Packer and Hall, Martin made sure to speak up, especially as it pertained to certain nuisances and things concerning teens today. “The thing about Marsai that’s really smart is that she knows when to make her voice heard and she also knows when to sit back and learn,” Packer revealed. “She has a perspective that none of us has. We want this movie to work with other teenage girls, we want them to see it, and feel like it’s relatable and that there is an entry point for them and it’s enjoyable. She knows that, so she was able to tell us things about the script, character, and movie that her demographic would like and could relate to. She was a sponge in this process, she definitely came in wanting to learn. This is definitely not the last movie she’ll produce.”
Packer also knew it was important to find the right director for the film—a Black woman specifically to bring Martin’s vision to the big screen. He decided to enlist Peeples director Tina Gordon who wrote the script with Girls Trip scribe Tracy Oliver. Gordon gathered a village of women together, infusing Black women’s work in everything from the soundtrack and set design to the wardrobe and art. “Marsai has next, Issa has now and Regina has been with it,” Packer explained, “One of the things I’ve been happy about is getting out of the way and letting Black women do their thing on this movie. So you have very specific and authentic portrayals of these women.”
For Martin, the experience of making Little has erased any fears and limitations that she may have had before signing on to do the project. “I don’t care what age you are,“ she said urgently. “I don’t care if you’re 4 or 84, it doesn’t matter. There’s no age limit, there’s no limit to what you can do, and if you think you can do it at this time, you don’t have to wait. I want people to say, a 13-year-old created this film and it turned out to be this wonderful Black girl magic fulfilling and loving film. I think that is probably what I want to let kids know about, like, ‘Oh, wow, she made this really dope film at this young age, that means I can do it, too.'”
Though we’re certain even more amazing things are coming for Martin, for now, the 14-year-old is content to live in the moment. “I have dreams,” she reflected, “but I don’t know what 18-year-old Marsai would want, or 21-year old Marsai. It’s very surreal and I’m kind of glad Little took as long as it did because I’ve learned so much now. I’ve gotten wonderful advice and love and support. I think it just came out at the right time. I think it’s all from God. God really knows what he’s doing, I’m very grateful. It hasn’t really dawned on me yet, but I do know that this will inspire kids to do the same.”
Little will premiere April 12, 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide