Sonequa Martin-Green is glowing. Despite our interview taking place over Zoom – as all interviews do these days – the 35-year-old actor beams out of my computer screen as if she were a hologram from the USS Star Ship Discovery on her hit show, Star Trek: Discovery.
Her glow is part impeccable glam squad, part postpartum radiance.
She is the first-ever female Black lead in the cult Netflix franchise, Star Trek: Discovery. Here, Sonequa Martin-Green opens up to GLAMOUR’s Emily Maddick about the impact of Black Lives Matter, racism she has faced, feminism, motherhood and her own fledgling political ambitions…
For in July, Sonequa became a mother for the second time to a baby girl, Saraiyah. (She and her husband, actor Kenric Green, also have five-year-old Kenric II, who pops up to wave a cute hello at the beginning of mummy’s interview.) And it is since having a daughter that Sonequa tells me her attitude to representation, and also to feminism, have really come to the forefront, especially during this turbulent year. As the first-ever Black female lead of Star Trek, playing the kickass Commander Michael Burnham, Sonequa is quick to acknowledge the responsibilities that come with having such a platform on a show with a massive cult following.
“I think being a woman and having a daughter now has really opened a lot of things up for me,” she says. “And I believe that being a Black woman at the helm of this franchise is very important for people to see. Because it’s one thing to see representation, but it’s not enough. The representation needs to be full of potential. And I love that I get to be this woman, Michael Burnham, who is genius, competent, sacrificial; a woman who leads with integrity, heart and grace.”
“I believe that being a Black woman at the helm of this franchise is very important for people to see.”
Fans of the franchise will recognise all these qualities of Sonequa’s character as Michael Burnham takes on Klingons, flies solo through wormholes 900 years into the future and tackles danger at every turn. But, on watching the current season three on Netflix, it is the show’s feminist credentials that impress me most. “Feminism is in the show,” Sonequa agrees, pointing out how as the series is set in the 32nd century in the year 3188, inequality between the sexes no longer exists. “These things that plague us now have been completely eradicated so much so that they don’t even need a conversation,” she says. “The women are heralded for what they bring to the table, but no different than men. We’re equal.”
For non-Trekkies, uninitiated in the vast and extensive subculture of this 50-year old cult show, the famous franchise has always pioneered diversity and inclusion – and not just with alien species. “This is a legacy of diversity and inclusion and true indivisibility,” she tells me. “And so, we are doing our part to contribute to this, and doing our part to continue that innovation.”
Sonequa has also been doing her part in terms of fighting for racial justice here on earth too, and her Instagram feed to her 1.2million followers reveals not only a new hunger for politics (she participated in a virtual Biden rally: Trek the Vote to Victory in October hosted by Democratic politicians, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Yang) but also fervent support of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. She is candid about the impact BLM has had on her personally, in having to confront systematic racism that she has experienced in her own life.
“The women [in Star Trek: Discovery] are heralded for what they bring to the table, but no different than men. We’re equal.”
“Oh, my goodness, what a year,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s been a whirlwind of an experience for everyone, of course, and it’s been a whirlwind of an experience for me. So many things came to the surface for me as a result of the resurgence of this [BLM] movement… it made me see that I had pushed a lot of stuff to the side. I had been in denial about a lot of things [more on this later], thinking that I had dealt with them, when really, I had just packed it away. The self-hatred that comes from racism, that comes from any kind of divisive evil like that. What it makes you believe about yourself is the true tragedy. And so, all those self-hating thoughts were coming up to the surface for me.”
“The self-hatred that comes from racism, that comes from any kind of divisive evil, What it makes you believe about yourself is the true tragedy.”
Sonequa tells me how initially, in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death in May, she was in “a pit of despair” and was forced to come off social media for a few weeks. “It was very challenging and there were a lot of tears,” she says and as we talk now, she admits she feels close to tears again.
“It’s bad enough what my people have endured, from the inception of the American government, obviously from slavery, all the way to now… sometimes it feels worse than ever for me to say that out loud or say that in a public forum and have someone argue that it’s not true and say that what plagues my people doesn’t exist. So much so that I had to take a step back from social media because I said, ‘I am hurting, I can’t do this. I can’t argue with you. It’s enough that this is happening. It’s enough that it’s always been happening. It’s enough that I have horror and heartache in my blood and imprinted in my DNA. I cannot see another #AllLivesMatter in response.”‘
We talk about how insidious racism defined her early life, career and attitude to her own identity.
“I grew in in the South [in Alabama]. Racism was rampant,” she states matter-of-factly. And while she tells me that her childhood living with her seamstress mother and steel mill worker father and her four sisters (three half from her father) was mainly happy and full – “Our parents struggled but had great senses of humour. I loved school, loved my friends,” – it was mired by racism. “There are loads of specific moments of racism that I can recall from my childhood but what has stuck with me over the years was the general sense of hatred that I felt every day. The air was thick with this both spoken and unspoken doctrine, and it hung in the air like the stench of rotten meat. ‘You’re less than. You have no value. You’re not welcome here.’ It was just understood. I found joy by choosing to ignore it.'”
But, she admits that despite ignoring it, the devastating impact of living with such deep-rooted racism exposed itself within her this year.
“Growing up with that lie, especially having a lie like that at the core of my identity, it’s not something that I really dealt with. I thought I dealt with it, but the resurgence of Black Lives Matter really brought it to light to me.”
“There are loads of specific moments of racism that I can recall from my childhood but what has stuck with me over the years was the general sense of hatred that I felt every day.”
On the subject of her own body image, she also relates how racism and racial stereotypes had a negative influence on how she viewed herself growing up. Sonequa is renowned for playing her most famous roles (Sasha Williams in The Walking Dead and Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery) with her hair natural, not straightened, and we discuss the highly emotive subject.
“Oh man, Black hair! It’s important, it’s pivotal,” she says. “And my hair journey can almost run parallel to my very identity as a Black woman. Even my identity as it relates to my body is connected to my hair. So, I had the typical experience that a lot of Black women have had where when I was a child, I was conditioned to believe that my hair as it naturally grows out of my scalp is ugly. And if I want it to be beautiful, my hair needs to be straight. I got a relaxer when I was 12.”
“Oh man! Black hair! It’s important, it’s pivotal,”
In her early career, she says she would never go to an audition with her natural hair. “Straight hair was standard,” she says. “Unless you didn’t want to work.” When she landed her role in Star Trek: Discovery in 2017 she was “adamant” her character would honour her natural hair. “It was already a big deal that a Black woman was going to be at the helm of the franchise, so it was very important to me to continue with that kind of political statement and make sure that Michael Burnham’s hair was natural and all the decision makers were down for that.”
Naturally athletic, with a petite frame, Sonequa’s role on Star Trek: Discovery is also physically demanding, meaning she is in constant training, and she often does her own stunt work. But she reveals that when she was younger, she had a distorted view of her slender build based on racial stereotypes. “Back in the mid-to-late eighties, early nineties everything I saw, with hip hop, was all curvy, curvy, big butt,” she recalls.
“As a Black girl, I felt I was supposed to look this way. I always felt that I wanted hips and a butt. I wanted to be bigger and I spent much of my childhood, adolescence and even into my young adulthood doing all kinds of things to get bigger.” She laughs at the memory, “When I was around 12 I used to eat peanut butter and drink Ensure, a meal replacement drink, before I went to sleep. I would ask our family doctor, ‘Is there anything you can give me that’ll make me gain weight?'”
“As a Black girl, I felt I was supposed to look curvy. I always felt that I wanted hips and a butt.”
Now, after the birth of her second child, Sonequa says she has had enlightenment about her body. “With my first pregnancy I bounced back without trying (which is a crime, by the way, that we expect women to do that after birth rather than focus on healing). This time, even if I wanted that, my body said: ‘no we’re going to take some time here, we need to heal.’ And so, I find myself in this bigger, fuller body and it made me appreciate where I was before. It took this for me to finally accept who I am.”
Taking all of this into account, does she feel hopeful for the future? “I do believe that things have to come up to the surface in order to be healed,” Sonequa says. She also believes positive change is now possible. “We love to talk about change from a macro perspective: policy change, law amendment, community outreach and education, and I think we do need to be talking about change in those collective terms. But I also think change is small and quiet and in each individual’s heart.”
Indeed, Sonequa is delighted at the forthcoming change in administration and the exciting and historical prospect of a woman of colour, Kamala Harris, becoming Vice President. ‘I was waiting with bated breath to be able to exhale and celebrate her,’ she says.
“I’ve found myself getting involved [in politics] much more than ever before and being more engaged, listening more than ever. It’s pulled me in.”
We return to her own budding interest in politics, following the events of 2020 and her turn in the Trek the Vote to Victory rally, and while she says she can’t yet reveal details, she has more political plans within the forthcoming months.
“I’ve found myself getting involved much more than ever before and being more engaged, listening more than ever. It’s pulled me in. I have so much further to go… I don’t know what exactly that’s going to look like, but it did ignite me.” Will the phenomenal Ms Martin-Green, ahem, boldly go into a career politics? Watch this space.