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A Child Shall Lead Them
One Little Girl, One Big Idea
While Hollywood has a rich history of funny, engaging body-swap comedies, it took a then-10-year-old Marsai Martin to notice a rather obvious cultural gap. None of those movies was about black girls or black women. "It was during season one of Black-ish when we were on hiatus," says Martin, who's now 14. "It was the first time I learned what a hiatus was. So I thought, 'Ok, we're on a break, how about we create something?' There weren't a lot of little black girls with glasses that looked like me on TV or in movies, so I just wanted to create something where you see more of myself and what you look like." In a conversation with her mother, the concept for Little was born.

"I think this film can actually inspire girls and teenagers like me to realize that it doesn't matter how old you are," Martin says. "You don't have to wait until you're a certain age if you want to create something. When people see this film, I want them to take away the fact that they can do anything at any age. I don't care if you're 7, 2 or 82, you can do whatever you want at any age and at any time and you can impact other kids like me."

Martin and her parents, Josh and Carol Martin, took the idea to Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. "Kenya suggested we take it to Will Packer Productions," executive producer Josh Martin says. "We didn't really need to sell it; it was more about Will hearing the idea. He was already sold on Marsai and her capabilities." Carol Martin adds: "Will Packer Productions was the perfect home for this idea. When we told them the concept, they just got it."

Packer, who has become one of the most prolific and successful producers in the industry by creating top-tier entertainment that celebrates black characters, lives and experiences, immediately connected with Martin's idea and saw its potential.

"Josh and my good friend Kenya came into my office and pitched me the story and I loved it," Packer says. "Marsai was in the room and acted out some scenes, and I could just feel the energy and see that this was a movie we hadn't seen before. My youngest daughter is the same age as Marsai. I realized that there aren't a lot of aspirational movies where she can see herself on screen or identify with the protagonist, and I thought Marsai's idea was a very cool concept."

In addition to being a concept with limitless comedic potential, it was anchored by timely and important themes. "This movie is about a magical event that happens and how a young girl can turn a curse into an actual gift," Packer says. "There are some really important messages in this movie about being true to who you are. The film is about being stronger by using the people around you rather than putting them down. We're all stronger when we're working with other people versus doing things alone."

Plus Martin impressed him, to say the least. "Marsai, a little 10 year old, came in and pitched a movie to a Hollywood producer," Packer says. "Who does that? She was really clear, self-assured and confident in the way she saw this movie playing out. I thought, 'Damn. I might need to work for you someday.' And I might." Packer's producing partner James Lopez adds: "Marsai pitched the concept, which we thought was great. She is super talented, wise beyond her years and nothing surprises us in terms of the ideas that she generates. She and her family are great partners. She has a very bright future."

With Packer on board, his team, including Martin, eventually met with Universal executives. "It was just all of this big ol' stuff going on, and it just got bigger from there," Martin says. "It's truly a blessing and I'm very grateful."

Packer and his team now had an exciting, innovative concept but needed to develop it into a filmable story and script. Tracy Oliver, who had co-written Girls Trip with Barris, was brought in to create a formal narrative around Martin's idea. Martin herself stayed involved in each step of the process. "Marsai always had a vision for how she wanted this movie to come together," Packer says. "It was good because she was able to step back and allow me and my team to do what we do, but also give her input at times. She was a student of the game but also knew how to make her voice heard when appropriate."

Over a few years of development, the story evolved. Tina Gordon, the writer of the 2002 sensation Drumline and the writer-director of 2013's Peeples, was hired to work on the script and eventually to direct the film. "We landed on Tina Gordon to rewrite the script early on in the process," producer Lopez says. "While we were going through the development process, Will and I advocated for Tina to be the director. When she met with the studio, she knocked the meeting out of the park and we've been partners ever since. I think it's important for the cast to see an African-American woman at the helm, not only writing but also directing this project."

For Gordon, the decision to direct Little was not one she made lightly. "I was nervous when Will asked me to direct," Gordon says. "He has such an amazing track record and his intelligence about filmmaking is unmatched. He works so hard and puts it all into his productions. I think audiences feel and respond to that. He has a unique gift, and I was definitely nervous about that, but I didn't want to let him down. He was so supportive about the idea of women coming together to support each other."

The final script, and the film, touch on themes of self-empowerment, personal evolution, the impact of bullying and the importance of lifting up those around you to aspire to be their best selves. It also features the first ever portrayal of a black female tech CEO on film. "Little is about Jordan Sanders, a hard-driven woman who is very accomplished in her career," executive producer Preston Holmes says. "At the same time, she has paid the price in terms of her personal relationships. She made a decision early in life that she would put her guard up in hopes that this would prevent her from being hurt again. Over the course of the film, she's transformed into her 13-year-old self once again, allowing her to rethink and relive moments of her past."

Jordan had been bullied in middle school for being smart, and the film deals directly with the long-term impact of that young-adolescent experience. "Jordan has isolated herself because she was hurt as a child," Gordon says. "She's carried a tough exterior in her adult life and, through magic, she wakes up as her younger self. When she's little, she can see how much she has allowed bullying to change the spirit of who she is on the inside."

Jordan's transition back to adolescence also dramatically alerts her relationship with her beleaguered assistant, April Williams. "I think April and Jordan crossed paths to teach each other something," Gordon says. "April could use some of the gumption and shark-like behavior of Jordan. Jordan could learn to take some of her layers off and how to be an actual friend. It's a story about mentorship really. It's about learning from your protégé. In the film we see April and Jordan's relationship change from very one-sided to a true friendship."

Ultimately, the film speaks to universal themes and ideas that all people can relate to. "This is a film about being your best self," Lopez says. "If you could go back and relive a moment in your life and change something, what would you do differently?"

It's an inspiring question that should resonate with audiences of all ages. "This is definitely a multi-generational movie," Josh Martin says. "I think it's a film that is going to last forever." It's also, Marsai Martin emphasizes, just flat-out funny. "I think families will enjoy how hilarious this movie is," she says. "I think it's something that both kids and adults can laugh at and relate to."

That is a rare combination of qualities for a comedy, which is part of the reason everyone involved in the making of Little became so invested in getting in right. "This film has the potential to appeal to a vast array of audiences," Holmes says. "Not just women, but anyone who appreciates a comedy with heart. It's the kind of comedy that's also thought-provoking and poignant. I love working with Will, James Lopez and Universal, so I was thrilled to be involved again."

Power Through Pain
The Impact of Bullying
When we first meet Jordan Sanders in the film, she's a 13-year-old girl demonstrating a massive science experiment at a middle-school talent competition, and she is being mocked, teased and bullied by her classmates. The experiment doesn't quite go according to plan, and Jordan ends up in the emergency room, where her parents advise her that smart girls, when they grow up, get to be bosses and can do whatever they want. Jordan takes that to heart, but with unintended consequences. When we see her again as an adult, she's the CEO of her own tech company, JS Innovations (JSI, for short), but has become a monster of a boss, bullying those who work for her instead of showing them compassion, kindness or even basic respect. "After growing up, Jordan thought, 'forget that, I'm going to be the boss one day and, when I'm the boss, people are going to look up to me and respect me,'" Issa Rae says. "So in turn, she bullies people as an adult, until one day, she's cursed to become her former child self and it's a nightmare for her."

From the beginning of the development process, Martin wanted Little to explore the impact of bullying, and for it to be an essential part of Jordan's character. "Bullying is a very relatable topic in schools these days," Martin says. "I'm excited to talk about it so people can understand how bad it really is. I'm very glad that the film is honest about it because it's a very sensitive topic in our schools right now. Our writers Tina and Tracy are great and they wrote it in so well."

Martin's fellow filmmakers embraced the idea. "What I think is so magical about this story is that Marsai picked this," says star and executive producer Regina Hall. "There are so many issues with bullying today, and she picked this story for people to see what happens to someone who is bullied. Jordan becomes a bully and then realizes that she was acting that way just because she didn't want to be hurt. I thought the way the story was handled was amazing, and the fact that this is what Marsai wanted to say was also so wonderful."

The fact that this serious subject matter is woven seamlessly into a riotously funny comedy is even more impressive. "The writers did an incredible job with telling the story about what happened to Jordan," Hall says. "I think people have all been in situations where they've been bullied or have been the bully. When Jordan is bullying her employees, the idea is to try to make sure every character is seen as human. My hope is that audiences can see how ridiculous and hurtful bullying is. Bullying doesn't come from a place of strength. Bullying actually comes from a place of weakness. It's a lonely place, and we discover that through Jordan."

The goal for the filmmakers was to use the topic to give emotional weight to the film without weighing it down. "There is a lot of focus on bullying these days, rightly so," Holmes says. "Kids can be cruel to each other, and that's always been the case. The difference these days is social media, which can take bullying to a different level. I like that a couple of points are made about bullying by the end of this film. The first, just the fact that bullying others is cruel. And the second, the fact that the perpetrators are often people who are damaged or have been hurt. It's all done in a somewhat lighthearted fashion in our film, but it's an important topic that I'm glad the film touches on."

Gordon saw it as an opportunity to convey empathy and compassion for kids watching the film who have been bullied, and to show them that they can survive it and still be OK. "Bullying comes at such a vulnerable time in teens' lives," Gordon says. "I wanted to send a message of encouragement to kids who are in that situation through this film. When I was a kid, I defended kids that were bullied. Looking back at that now, it's what I'm the most proud of from my childhood."

Black Girl Magic
Celebrating Confidence, Intelligence and Creativity
The idea of black girl magic is both literal and metaphorical in Little, and the concept eventually expanded to every area of the film's production.

On a narrative level, it is literal black girl magic that transforms Jordan Sanders into her 13-year-old self. Early in the film, Jordan is terrorizing her employees and being brutally rude to April in front of Stevie (Marley Taylor), a little girl whose father runs a donut truck outside Jordan's company, JSI. April has always been kind to Stevie, and Stevie comes to April's defense. Stevie confronts Jordan, and when Jordan refuses to apologize, Stevie waves a magic plastic wand at Jordan and makes a wish that Jordan become little again. The next morning, Jordan wakes up in her 13-year-old body.

"I don't like little Stevie," Regina Hall jokes. "She may be awfully cute and magical with her little plastic wand, but she actually makes Jordan little. That actually ends up being kind of a blessing in disguise because it changes the course of Jordan's life. That little Stevie."

In a broader sense, though, black girl magic refers to Marsai Martin herself, who conceived the film in the first place. So, the filmmakers seized the opportunity to hire as many black women as they could for as many areas of production as they could, celebrating their talents, brilliance and creativity. "The first bit of black girl magic was Marsai pitching the film to Universal," Gordon says. "That would be a miraculous thing for an adult to do, so for a child to do it, it's quite the magic trick. So I started thinking about the black women all over that are doing these small and giant miracles every day. I wanted to add women behind the scenes, artists and women of the world to the production to contribute their black girl magic every day."

Not only is the cast lead by three extraordinary black women, but Gordon and Tracy Oliver are black women, and black women were responsible for much of what audiences will see on screen.

"There are a lot of amazing women who are a part of this project," Hall says. "Tina is so amazing. Marsai is obviously magical, and Issa is incredible. We used amazing black artists, designers, wardrobe, hair and makeup artists. I mean, there are just so many phenomenal women on this film. It's been wonderful to wear clothes from black designers and to be able to support one another in such an incredible way."

Hall's co-star, and everyone else, loved being able to do that, particularly for this film. "The black girl magic came strong with this one," Rae says. "I think Will had a vision. He's been really great about championing women and girls, and this movie in particular is such a women-heavy storyline, both in front of and behind the camera. With Tina directing, Marsai pitching the film, and me and Regina involved, we all worked together to make this the best movie possible."

Packer did, in fact, have a vision, and he was thrilled to see it realized. "These women are the epitome of black girl magic and the movie itself is magical as well," Packer says. "I had a very unique and awesome opportunity to highlight and showcase black women and their talent. Every chance we got, we tried to use black female artisans, and that was very important to Tina as well." Lopez adds: "The movie is whimsical and magical and we wanted to keep that theme throughout the development process. Will and I constantly spoke about finding a project that spoke to a whole generation of young girls that are underrepresented in film. We are so happy that we were able to execute this project in such a way that inspires its intended audience and beyond. I want audiences to go in and have an enjoyable time watching amazing African-American women in all their black-girl-magic glory."

Martin was elated by it all. "I mean, we had painters that were black girls and clothing that was black-owned," Martin says. "There's just a lot of powerful stuff happening in this film that I think can actually inspire people."

Martin herself has already inspired her co-stars. "Hearing that Marsai pitched this at 10 years old honestly made me think about what I was doing at 10 years old," Rae says. "I wasn't doing as much as her, but I had dreams. At 11 I wrote scripts and sent them to networks but got rejected. So to hear that at 10 years old, she had this concept and pitched it to Will Packer's company is just so amazing and inspiring. There isn't a lot of young-black-girl representation, so when young black girls hear about Marsai pitching this movie, they will think, 'Wow, maybe I can do it, too.'"

Rae, and all the women involved in the film, wanted to give something back to Martin for her vision and drive. "Women came around Marsai to support her," Gordon says. "They lent the magic that they've created in their own lives to lift her up while she made her first feature. Marsai's gumption and spirit are amazing. The fact that she brought this idea to life really grounds the idea that there are young black girls in this world doing incredible things."

(The magic, it should be noted, was not limited solely to black women, either. "We had some great men, too," Hall says. "We had some man magic, black girl magic and some white magic. We had a lot of magic going on.")

For Martin, the whole process of making Little became a master class in filmmaking, one that will guide the next phase of her career and beyond. "I've been on Black-ish for about five years, and I've learned that making a movie is totally different from a TV show," Martin says. "I never realized how long the process of moviemaking was until I came into this, especially being in front of and behind the camera. A ton of work goes into it."

February 2019, Martin and her company, Genius Productions, entered into a first-look production agreement with Universal Pictures, making her the youngest filmmaker ever to receive a production pact with the studio. That, Packer says, is just as it should be.

"I think it's so important for Marsai to be creating and telling her own stories and to be part of the production process because the actors that do that are the ones who have the most longevity in the business," Packer says. "Those actors take control of their own images, careers and opportunities. There's no one in this space quite like Marsai. No one that looks like her, is her age or is as driven as she is. She's created an opportunity for herself, and I have no doubt that this movie will be a launching pad for her. You certainly haven't seen the last of Marsai and the productions that she'll be behind."

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