As hard as it is to believe, black-ish is over. Yes, we knew it was coming. We had EBONY’s gorgeous Tracee Ellis Ross and Marsai Martin cover celebrating its end, and we chatted with black-ish creator Kenya Barris about the show’s legacy. Heck, Marsai Martin gave us a heads up back in August when she spoke on Paw Patrol. Now there is no more denial. Going forward, this book on the Johnsons is completely closed. True
TRACEE AND MARSAI TAKE A BOW
Onscreen mother-daughter duo Tracee Ellis Ross and Marsai Martin’s bond transcends as ‘black-ish’ fades to black.
Story by Geneva S. Thomas
Photography by Keith Major
The end of black-ish is without a doubt the end of an era. Audiences will be moved to tears during this final goodbye to a series—with its ensemble cast including Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson, Jenifer Lewis, Laurence Fishburne , Yara Shahidi, Marsai Martin, Marcus Scribner and Miles Brown—that managed to introduce to America with levity and instruction the often-awkward and maddening conversations around race. In television’s canon, black-ish is arguably the most intentionally Black series in ways Good Times, The Cosby Show and My Wife & Kids didn’t have to be. For eight seasons, the family series loosely based on show creator Kenya Barris’ own life, wasn’t afraid to go there. Andre (Dre), an ad executive, and his wife, Rainbow (Bow) Johnson, an anesthesiologist, are Black parents raising five children in a mostly white and affluent Los Angeles suburb. The couple have to deal with racial microaggressions and navigate raising their children in an America that so badly wants to be post-racial but isn’t. We are invited as voyeurs inside their home to witness them raise Black sons and daughters through the highs and lows of existing in these United States.
This Women’s History Month, EBONY sat down with Ross, 49, and Martin, 17, and delved into their piercing connection. Tracee, the Hollywood stalwart, loves on Marsai, a burgeoning icon for the new Black Gen Z, whom she affectionately calls Caila, the Texas native’s first name (Marsai is her middle name). The former child star-turned-teen mogul attributes her groundedness in the industry to both her real-life mother, Carol, and to Tracee, her on-screen mom, who openly dotes on the young performer in a way that’s not overwhelming or smothering. It feels protective, affectionate and even sisterly; their bond is evident.
Below, the pair lay it all on the table for us, rejoicing in the unique legacy of black-ish as the series fades to black later this month. For both actors, there’s a clear sense of pride in their work on the show over nearly a decade, a body of deeply important cultural work. There is also an energetic eagerness for both ladies—32 years apart in age—about what’s next for their careers. They opine on an Obama-age, pop-culture phenom that, in the coolest and possibly low-risk way, peeled back the mask on what it means to be Black and middle class in 21st century America.
we ushered in what I hope will not be space for gaps anymore, that these stories are part of the landscape of television on a regular basis.
-Tracee Ellis Ross
Black-ish emerged during the age of Obama, and this radical shift around Black Lives Matter, Civil Rights 2.0 and getting to see the biracial experience on TV that has never been seen before. What is the series’ unique legacy?
Tracee: I feel like what we did was really transformational—both for us personally, and for the industry. Yes, in terms of what our stories were and who we were on the show, and the fact that for so long, there have been these gaps that happen in the canon of television. I think we ushered in what I hope will not be space for gaps anymore, that these stories are part of the landscape of television on a regular basis.
I also feel like it’s often really destabilizing to be confronted by the reality of this country, and to not let it squash you. It’s more than a notion to keep rising above all the limiting ideas that people have of who we’re meant to be and who we are. So to be an American, an American family, on television, the Johnsons, who don’t just happen to be Black, but are Black, and to have—on a personal level—a space where I could be free, and shine, and be a part of a family and share a version of who we are to keep expanding how the world sees us—yes, it’s really special.
The other piece is to have, across the board, so many parents from various parts of the country come up to me in restaurants, grocery stores and say, “My 12-year-old or 13-year-old will not do anything with me, will not talk to me, will not sit down at the table with me; but we watch black-ish together and I get 22 minutes to sit with my kid.” The show is based in laughter and it’s based in connection—and to me, that’s the best of entertainment.
Marsai: I started black-ish when I was 9. It was my first TV show, and it was just such a welcoming place. It’s been absolutely amazing. And it’s been so educational—having an impact on other families, as well, and building a legacy beyond what my wildest dreams would have been. We have opened the door for so many Black creators to have a seat at the table. That is a part of the legacy of black-ish, especially for my generation.
Marsai, you grew up before our eyes on the show. We’ve seen throughout TV history many child stars struggle in Hollywood. How has black-ish and having Tracee Ellis Ross as your TV mom, and your actual family been grounding for you?
Marsai: It’s just blessings all around to be a part of an amazing family that truly cares and supports me and will ride for me in any shape or form. To have so many brilliant, legendary leaders that just organically become your family like Tracee, Anthony, Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis—it’s one of the best things to ever happen to me. I’m beyond grateful. I’ve learned so many things from them. I’m not really a person that asked for advice often; I’m more of an observer. To watch people’s craft, and just see how they work and their work ethic, I absorb it and take it in. For example, with Tracee, I’ve learned to speak my mind more. I’ve learned to be my character more and be more present in the moment. I’ve definitely seen that part from Tracee, because she’s always been just so open.
My own family has sacrificed so much for me; I’ve been able to do so many things because of them. So when you talk about child actors going a different route, with my family, that’s not even a factor. It’s just the way I grew up, the way that they brought me up and the way that they ground me.
To have so many brilliant, legendary leaders that just organically become your family like Tracee, Anthony, Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis—it’s one of the best things to ever happen to me.
Tracee: Marsai comes from really good people. They feel like my family, too, and have from the beginning. My mom and my family have provided that kind of grounding for me as well. It’s where it comes from for me—and yes, my mom is Diana Ross; but my mother, like Marsai’s mom, Carol, is still a mom. And I’m really close with my siblings. When you have that kind of bond that is based on not what you do but who you are, I think the sky’s the limit in terms of your dreams. Also, you will always stay grounded and connected to reality and truth—and that’s what [Marsai] has. I think it’s the reason it’s been a really easy, wonderful bond between us.
Marsai, for you to be growing up on the show, and using your voice to unpack some of these topics around race, how has that experience been for you?
Marsai: For the first four seasons, I was just a kid having fun. Before black-ish, I was not on a set where I was around kids all the time, having a family unit. So black-ish was definitely the opportunity where I was just like, “OK, we get to have fun.” The playground was the house.
We love that for you, Marsai, that you got to experience joy and fun on set. Janet Jackson recently opened up in her Lifetime documentary about her experience being little Penny on the set of Good Times. There were traumatizing moments for her when she had her chest taped to make it appear smaller.
Tracee: Let me tell you something: I am a mama f**king bear. Particularly in those first few years, I was extremely protective of them as children, not as actors but as children. I advocated at many different moments and spoke up and took up arms as “Mama T” in places and in ways that I was like, “This does not feel right.” Their childhood and their souls are 10 times more important than this job and this show. Those were conversations I had with their parents, and I made myself very available to their parents. I think they all knew they could come to me if they didn’t know how to handle a situation that felt uncomfortable for them—that it was work but it was never at the expense of their souls and their hearts. I would be the liaison for those things, and I would advocate in that way. So I hope that we didn’t have any of those moments that in the long run are left as wounds. [Marsai] says the first four years felt like fun, and just knowing that is so important and means everything to me.
Marsai: Yeah, it was just fun. And I guess the more I grew up, the more I understood my craft.
Tracee: What I saw was that you started to learn how to wield your talent, how to use it, and what you wanted from it. I saw that her parents really learned how not be the stage parents that are living out their dreams through their children but are actually supporting their children in making their dreams come true, while doing it in a safe and fun way.
My life’s mission is about supporting everyone and feeling that everyone is safe and free to be themselves in the world, especially Black women.
-Tracee Ellis Ross
The bond between the two of you is so evident and real right now. We feel the love. What are your most proud moments on the show?
Tracee: The postpartum episode. I felt that we were doing something that hadn’t been done before, that was so important for the Black community, and particularly for Black women. My life’s mission is really about supporting everyone and feeling that everyone is safe and free to be themselves in the world, especially Black women. And so that episode brought a lot of pieces together for me and allowed a space where I felt proud of my work. I felt proud of what was written and what we were doing on the show, that it was told through the lens of this woman without shame, and that her husband was in support of her finding her way with it. I also loved doing the Juneteenth episode, because I felt, as a cast, we got to play together. It wasn’t just a regular episode. Another segment that I’m proud of was the one I directed that led us into the “almost-divorce” arc. Anthony and I really fought Kenya on that. We were not happy about doing those episodes—it felt really wrong. I hemmed and hawed through the whole thing. Directing that episode was really special. So in terms of the work, those are the ones that come to mind for me.
Marsai: For me, it was definitely the Juneteenth episode. It was a time where we just got to have fun. The choreography was hilarious. Being able to just be and roll up on the show, that was such a wonderful experience. And just seeing how my life was when we started versus how it is now—that’s the thing that I’m most proud of.
Tracee, from Joan on Girlfriends to Rainbow on black-ish, you have been one of the very few actresses in the game that is consistently our sister friend. You’ve taught us so much. Beyond the range of your characters and the humanity you’ve brought to those roles, you’ve taught us how to slay; you taught us how to rock a red lip—you taught us about “Ruby Woo” before anyone. We could pontificate all day on what you’ve meant to the culture, and what you continue to mean. Tell us about your evolution, your journey in Hollywood.
Tracee: I don’t even know how to talk about it. But you know, I just moved, and I’ve been in my other house for 19 years; I bought that house during Girlfriends. The fact that I have done black-ish and Girlfriends, two hit shows for eight seasons that are part of the fabric of us on TV—I don’t know how that happened. In taking inventory of my physical things, I was like, “Wow, I’ve been moving and working.” I’ve had my head down to a certain extent because I’m really present in what I do. It’s part of what I have discovered early on was my gift. I don’t know if I’m the best actress in the world. I don’t know if I’m the funniest person in the world. But what I know that I can do is be present and show up with 100 percent of myself and have a freedom in that. And that is the gift I know I can do that I can’t compare to anybody else. You know what I mean?
Yes! What you just described is what we connect with. So many Black women are trying to explore and work through how we show up.
Tracee: All these things we do as human beings—comparing our insides to other people’s outsides, especially in this career of Hollywood, where you’re constantly thinking, “It’s about what you look like and what you’re doing, and what they are doing”—I learned a long time ago when I was a track runner, you will lose the race if you look side to side or behind you. But this whole thing of stay in your lane? Bullshi*t! I’ll tell you right now I will run all up and around that track. You won’t know what lane I’m in, which way I’m coming, whether I’m up, down or around. Because what I’m following is my own compass and my own connection to my spiritual life. That’s what I’m living. I have a standard of excellence, and part of that standard of excellence is a wholeness that includes all my vulnerabilities, all my insecurities, all the things I don’t know.
And the hope that I have is that the way I show up in the world gives other people the idea that they can go, “Oh, I can show up as me.” I can’t be anybody but me. And sometimes I wake up and I feel like I don’t know if I can do that. But what I know is, I can be a worker among workers, people among people. I can show up. I can do my work. I can do my job. And what I realized in doing this inventory in my home, I was like, “Oh wow! I’ve done so many things. Look what I built; and look at this life I made. It’s not the life that I had thought it should be, but boy does it match who I am.” I feel good in it—even with all the things that haven’t happened that I wish had happened. I feel so proud of Girlfriends. I feel so proud of black-ish. I feel so proud of what those things in my career have given me and allowed me to now create and build. I have a production company. I’m producing many, many different things. I’m a CEO. I am making space in other areas, and I continue to make sure my work and my life makes space for people to be safe and free as they are. I really want Black women to thrive and have equity that they build.
We have opened the door for so many Black creators to have a seat at the table. That is a part of the legacy of ‘black-ish,’ especially for my generation.
Let’s talk about Pattern, your haircare line. Let’s talk about your journey into entrepreneurship. Not only the work, the equity you’re building and pushing for yourself and your legacy, but also the solutions you’re giving to Black women through your haircare company.
Tracee: Pattern was 10 years in the making. It took 10 years for me to break through in the industry. It was a synergy of an intersection and a synergy of timing. My career getting to a certain place, me having gotten enough no’s that helped me to focus my vision and really get clear about what it is that I wanted to do. By the time I got to a place where I was finding funding from operational partners I met with, I knew what the vision of the brand was. It has evolved in its language, but in its nature it has been the same from the beginning. First, it is to meet and now exceed the needs of the curly, coily and tight-textured community everywhere. I believe hair does not have a gender or a race. The second part is that we are centered around the celebration of Black beauty. The products are made by and for specifically textured hair, period. And that means we are the subjects and not the objects of our content and our marketing. That means we are an active space where we are based in the celebration of our beauty. So often, the beauty industry is based on fixing a problem, particularly around Black women and Black people, women of color and tighter textured hair. Our beauty has never been within the standard, let alone simply celebrated. So I don’t believe that there’s any problem to fix; we are here to celebrate our beauty. And that’s what the company is based on. Lastly, the third prong is about sharing back with our community. You see on the back of our packaging we are always giving back. We’re nimble in that because our needs change as a community. I could talk about it forever, but it really is about us being able to see ourselves in the celebration of who we are.
Marsai, you announced your press-on nail line Mari in January. Tell us more about the product.
Marsai: I love my nails. I change them every two days. I discovered press-on nails before I discovered hair and makeup—and all that type of stuff—because that was the only thing I felt I had control over. When I walked on the red carpet, I was 8 or 9 and all I wore was ChapStick and a little bit of clear mascara. I wanted to feel like I was doing something, so that’s when I discovered press-on nails. I really wanted to change the market perception that they have a limited range and are not luxurious. My line is composed of durable nails of great quality that speak to me.
Now let’s get into your next projects. Tracee, please give us a preview of coming attractions.
Tracee: The three things that I have in production at the moment are Jodie, which is the spinoff of Daria, with MTV. My partner on that project is Grace Edwards, who was one of the producers and main writers on Insecure. Then there’s the docuseries Hair Tales with Michaela Angela Davis, which we partnered with Oprah, Hulu and OWN. It is a portal into Black women through our hair and all of the glory of what that is. Last, I have a podcast called I Am America, which is about sharing the hidden angels that make up the fabric of this country and are the promise of America.
Marsai, we love the film Little. What’s next for Genius Productions, the production company that you founded?
Marsai: For this year, the first thing coming up is Paramount+’s Fantasy Football, which will be filming in April, and is a collaboration with the NFL and EA Sports. It’s a father-and-daughter story that brings you into this whole fantasy world. The dad is a football player that ends up losing his career; he’s been in the game for too long. I play his daughter, who is really good at the football video game Madden. Some crazy magic thing happens, and my character gains the ability to control her dad on the field by playing the video game. Then there’s StepMonster, which is with Universal and Will Packer Productions. My character’s dad gets remarried and I have a whole battle with [his new wife]. Also, we’re adapting the best-selling novel Amari and the Night Brothers with Mandeville Films. Don Cheadle is producing with me; that’s also with Universal Pictures. And in May, I’ll be filming Disney Channel’s Saturdays in Chicago.
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