How To Push Past Discrimination As A Black Woman in the Entertainment Industry

Tiauna Jackson is the owner of boutique talent and literary agency The Jackson Agency. A graduate of Chapman University and UCLA, Jackson made headlines in the New York Times' as the only independently owned agency quoted in a recent article about the lack of Black agents in Hollywood. Gabrielle Reed interviewed Tiauna Jackson on her vast life experiences and what it has been like being a Black woman shattering glass ceilings in the entertainment world. 

Tell us about yourself. Where is your hometown? Where did you attend school?

I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. My family has been in Arizona since the late 1800’s. My Dad knows EVERYBODY.  I can’t get away with anything without him knowing (Laughs). I went to Tempe High School, which was the first year-round high school in the state. I played basketball. I was an honorable mention all-state. I’m also a triple jump regional champion, and I might still hold the school record in triple jump. It’s amazing how fast 20 years flies by.

What was the lightbulb moment that made you realize you should start your own talent entertainment agency?

 My best friend, Karlos Sanders, is a director and writer. For over 12 years, he had been asking me to be his agent because he felt like I had the business savvy that is required. In my mid 20’s, I was able to get a meeting with the head of Eriq LaSalle’s production company, Humble Journey. I ended up taking Karlos’ scripts to Humble Journey and pitched. I was told by them that I was the best pitch of the day and was given an opportunity to send over the scripts after signing the release form. I wasn’t even an agent then. I was about 25-26 years old and was an accountant for privately wealthy individuals. Later, another production company had asked around for my contact information because they had seen me with [Humble Journey] and wanted to see what materials I was shopping. I guess my friend was right. He loves to remind me of that!

What were the steps you took to actually start your business?

I was always a by-the-book type. I would research things and follow the rules. Karlos and I decided we should just produce one of his scripts ourselves. So, I learned how to write a business plan. Once the business plan was completed, I marched right into a bank and said I wanted to get money to make a film. I proudly presented my business plan copy, and the banker didn’t even look at it. He just stared at me blankly and said, “Do you have any collateral?” That was the moment I realized that the people writing these books on how to make it in entertainment were full of it. I realized that no one cared if you had a great education, were professional, had some level of intelligence, or if you had a good script. All that mattered was if you had money. Because if you had money, you could borrow money. As a woman, when I hit my 30’s, I figured I had experienced enough life to take my destiny into my own hands. I tried the corporate thing. It worked, but I kept being told that I should be working for Fortune 500’s; not the mom-and-pops. Fortune 500’s didn’t want me, so I forged ahead and decided to finally work in an industry I have loved my entire life-entertainment. I tried to get jobs at various agencies with no luck. So I decided to just open my own, and here we are.

With Jackson Agency, do you feel you have curtailed some of the discrimination present in the entertainment industry? 

No. There’s a lot of work that’s needed to be done to “curtail” the discrimination in the entertainment industry. Yet, what I have done is been a place for all actors to come to and be molded into what is necessary to make it. I’ve had clients stereotype me, who conveniently put my ethnicity aside because they stated that I’m “well-spoken,” and because I in their opinion were doing work developing them for free. 

As soon as I turned them into something marketable, they left and have proceeded to bash me to other people. Imagine my shock when the photographer that I have referred a bunch of my clients to met me for the first time and said, “Wow, your clients have said that you are militant when they come in here. But, after meeting you, you are far from it, you are knowledgeable and dedicated”. These types of statements are detrimental to my character for obvious reasons. I’d rather be straight with you and tell you what’s up than to just smile and lie to you and do nothing for you. I come from a very strong line of women and men. In fact, most members of my family were the first Blacks hired in government and the private sector. My grandfather was the first black mechanic hired for Los Angeles County. My father was the first Black superintendent of a manufacturing plant in Arizona. Their lives, their stories, their experiences are why I can’t let discrimination stop me. 

That leads me to my next question. I love the fact that on your website, your branding imagery depicts you with your natural hair. Is it important to you to showcase your full Black self in a business atmosphere? 

I was discriminated on a job in entertainment; harassed because I went natural with my hair. I was told I resembled a boy due to me cutting my hair. I had to endure a white woman posting up portraits all over the office to attempt to humiliate me or say who she felt I reminded her of. That ended up in the employer actually recognizing the harassment and settling out of court with me. She even hired a Human Resource specialist to come in and do racial sensitivity training and in that training, the HR specialist said that she straightens her hair because it’s more professional.

Due to what happened after I went natural, it was VITAL to me as a potential leader in my beautiful Black Community to be unapologetic. Young Black women and men need to know that it is okay to be your natural self. I also did that photoshoot to re-build the confidence in myself. That harassment took a toll on my self-esteem. I’m happy that people have given me such great feedback about it. My clients tell me it’s “badass,” and potential clients have been disappointed when my hair is up when they meet with me. One said, “Awww man, I was looking forward to seeing the ‘fro.” That's beautiful considering NY just passed a law preventing hair discrimination. I read some comments about it on Facebook and the majority of commenters where white and were asking if this was really necessary. It just goes to show you just how much of a bubble some people choose to live in as a society.

Many of our readers are young black creatives who are looking for a big break. As an agent, what do you look for in a potential client? 

I’ve met so many people now that I can actually quantify it now. I look for coachability. Is this person coachable? Are they receptive to what I have to say about their materials, or are they fighting my recommendations? Are they someone that adds to the great team of clients I’ve built? I am generally excited about every client I sign, but I do use that “gut feeling” as well to figure out if they would be a great fit.

With literary, I’m expecting that they have all the essentials in place: logline, synopsis, show bible, look book, etc. What these newcomers aren’t understanding is the value of an education when it comes to the business side of this process. There’s nothing worse than finding a great script but not having the necessary sales elements in place. I can’t set up a meeting at a network for you and you don’t know how to pitch a show.

I’m moving in a space now where you either know exactly what this is and how it works or you just get left behind.

What are your pet peeves when it comes to the casting process?

It’s not so much a peeve, but some casting agencies play favorites and they can choose not to include us in the casting process. I had to strategically place clients with bigger agencies just so we could get them auditions because my submissions aren’t being allowed or seen. I think it’s an unfair practice, but I can’t do anything about it. I just try keep the faith that in time they’ll consider us. I have exceptional talent that will impress you. Typically, when we do receive an audition, my clients book the role. I just want better relationships with all parties involved in the process from directors, producers/showrunners, and casting directors. There are so many agents fighting for auditions now that we've been told we can't call or email, I’ve tried to schedule lunches to build these relationships but it’s hard. So, the only angle I have is if my client looks exactly like what they envisioned the character to be AND I make it through the Agency filter that the casting sites have in place. It’s tough.

How can potential clients get in touch with you?

Clients may submit an inquiry letter to our agency via email with all of the required materials ( Headshots, Materials, etc.).They can go to the website, , and click the submissions link, we have an application form that is easy to fill in.

How many clients do you service at this current moment and time? 

My client list fluctuates. People get dropped, or leave, and I sign new people hoping to fill gaps. I tend to stay around 50+. I’ve gone as high as 160, but I’ve toyed with tightening it up to a solid 25. Now that we’ve entered into the Literary space, I’d like to scale back on my actors so I just have a tighter more productive roster.

I’ve always believed that art is a form of activism. What is your favorite movie and or film that speaks directly to the Black experience? 

Whoopi Goldberg in The Associate.  I saw that movie as a teen and always thought it was so powerful, and it wasn’t until this moment (today years older) that I realize how relevant that film is to my life presently. Wow. Otherwise, it’s all things Spike Lee. School Daze that made me woke. She Hate Me taught me that no one respects or looks out for the whistleblower. Inside Man taught me about a person’s duality and the art of deception. Do The Right Thing taught me about how the Black existence is considered an inconvenience. Director Lee’s lack of an Oscar for Malcolm X taught me about racism and politics and how that will always trump pure talent and quality work in Hollywood.  I’d love to get my client, Sam T. West, in his next project.

In celebration of Black History Month, which Black historical figure do you want to celebrate and why? 

I come from a military family. So I’m going to talk about a few exceptional people MOST Americans don’t know about. My father and I run a non-profit, Buffalo Soldiers of America. It is dedicated to preserving the history and the legacy of the Buffalo Soldier. Presently, we are raising funds to purchase a statue that would be placed at the Arizona State Capital in memoriam of all Buffalo Soldiers. We were also trying to get the U.S. Army to save the Colored Officer’s Club at Fort Huachuca. If anyone can help with that, please contact me. It is vital to our history in the United States.

In 2009, my Dad (Chaz Jackson) worked with another non-profit to gain custody of the remains for Medal of Honor recipient Cpl. Isaiah Mays. They were granted custody and had his body exhumed from his unmarked grave behind the Arizona State Hospital and re-interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. We were able to get a headstone for Cpl. Mays at the hospital as well. He lied there for decades with not even a headstone. No dignity, no respect. My father and members of our organization, Buffalo Soldiers of America, escorted Isaiah’s remains via motorcycle from Arizona, all the way to Arlington. It was eye opening for me, to say the least, as we traveled across America. In certain states, they were not happy about us being there and were not happy Cpl. May's was awarded the Medal of Honor.  In Kansas, a man refused to shake my hand at the welcoming reception for the honorees once he found out we were apart of the May's exhumation team, his wife then said, “Well, you've got a hand right here,” and shook my hand. In that moment, I realized we really haven't progressed much as a nation. Cpl. Mays’ sacrifice and service meant nothing to this man because he was Black. This was in 2009. Cpl. Mays was escorting a pay wagon, it had all of the pay for the soldiers around 1890. His team was set up to be ambushed by a white officer in their unit. Isaiah was shot about 3 times, fought off the attackers, and then crawl-walked for several miles until he found a house and told them what happened and a message was sent out. For his gallantry, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Because the Buffalo Soldiers at the time were a segregated unit, when Isaiah went to retire with full benefits, a racist officer messed up his paperwork and made it seem like he wasn’t in long enough or in the Army at all. Isaiah died around 1920, homeless, broke, forgotten and was buried in an unmarked grave at the hospital. Cathay Williams is recorded as the first female Buffalo Soldier and served for several years before it was discovered that she was female. Like Isaiah, despite her service, she was denied disability. She’s got a fascinating story. I encourage everyone to look into William Cathay. She is yet another great example of our people’s ability to adapt, survive, and make the most out of a shitty situation.

Lastly, we recently got a chance to pay tribute to Phoenix native PFC Oscar Austin who is a Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipient and a Marine. He sacrificed his life by diving on a grenade which saved the lives of others. He was beloved by everyone. We made a video especially for the Naval Destroyer commissioned in his name, USS Oscar Austin, so that the Sailors and Marines aboard the ship would know his legacy while they proudly serve on their tour. We sent it off to the Chaplain and he loved it.

It is posted on my agency’s Youtube because what my father does for our ancestors’ legacy is far more important that any professional achievements I will ever obtain. The video shows anyone who finds it exactly what I am all about- service.

And with that, where do you see Jackson Agency in the next five years? 

If I remain in God’s favor, a well-respected powerhouse. My goal starting out has always been to be among the top 10 agencies in Los Angeles. I want offers coming in, rather than me going out and chasing them every day. It’s a battle, but we’re getting there. I’ve had some amazing potential clients reach out after reading the NYT article. I hope for my authenticity to continue to inspire others to want to join my agency.

As of February 24th, 2019, Spike Lee has won an Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman. At the time of this interview, Spike Lee had not achieved this well-deserved accomplishment.