Editor’s note: This profile is part of a series on Black entrepreneur expats — why they left, and what Philly could do better to keep the next generation.
Wynnewood and Lower Merion native Mike Jackson always felt like his entertainment career would one day take him to Los Angeles.
Today, he is an executive producer of Netflix music competition show “Rhythm + Flow” and the holiday film “Jingle Jangle,” as well as business partner of EGOT-winning musician and philanthropist John Legend in the Get Lifted Film Company.
Technical.ly has reported often on the challenges of doing business in Philadelphia, especially for entrepreneurs of color, as well as the resources available to them. Calls to stay, start and grow have bellowed in recent years as the city seeks to keep its talent close. But for three Black Philly-area natives working in creative industries — Jackson, Yusuf Muhammad and Mont Brown — it was never a question of whether they’d stay and grow locally. Their work is just not what the city was built to support, they say.
“For anyone that aspires to be in the entertainment business, you go to LA,” Jackson told Technical.ly. “I didn’t leave Philly because it was about race. It was about the infrastructure in Philadelphia. I worked for a production company in Philly and left because of the opportunities.”
While he has not filmed anything in the city yet, Jackson, who attended Friends’ Central School, Lower Merion High School and Penn State University, said he has always always felt supported by the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, the regional economic development agency that coordinates local shoots. Yet save for Philly’s summer of celebs in 2019, it’s not common to see lighting rigs and craft services on our streets.
To Jackson, Philadelphia is not unique in its inability to emulate Los Angeles, which over time has become uniquely equipped to serve as an entertainment hub for the rest of the world.
“I think it’s unfair to blame that on Philly,” he said. “There’s only one LA. I don’t think that’s a Philly problem.”
Having been away from Philadelphia for 20 years, Jackson may look at the city from what he calls a “30,000-foot” view, but he can still gauge the pulse of its social climate. Some of his projects have examined race in America, such as the critically acclaimed television program “Underground,” which portrayed the Underground Railroad, and “40 Years A Prisoner,” an HBO documentary about the 1978 Philadelphia police raid against activist group MOVE.
“I know there are things that could and should be done with the wealth base in Philly to support ideas from marginalized people,” he said.
Jackson does not recommend working in entertainment to the faint of heart. Having thick skin and patience for your craft as an actor, writer or director is crucial, he said. And in a city as saturated with talent as Los Angeles, taking classes and creating material with your smartphone can give you that much more of an ability to find success. (Take the rise of fellow Philly native and entertainer Quinta Brunson from social media maven to HBO and network TV star as one example.)
For college students, that could also look like tapping into an alumni network or connecting with personal social circles of people with similar interests — just don’t bug anyone, Jackson advises.
“Use balance. You don’t want to call someone 50 times,” he said. “Be respectful.”
It’s hard for him to pick a project of his that made him the most proud, but one stands out: “Jitney,” the late playwright August Wilson’s last work to make it to Broadway, which also won a Tony Award.
“To bring that to Broadway was incredible,” he said. “We got to spend a lot of time with his wife, and it was special. We also worked on a documentary inspired by him that premiered on Sundance.”
Los Angeles may have sunshine and many more perks for someone in the entertainment business, but Jackson still misses certain things about home.
“The thing about Philly I miss most is my people and friends,” he said. “They helped define the culture of Philly for me when I’m there and around them. There’s a go-getter attitude and rawness from my friends in Philly I don’t get from other places.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. -30-