By Cara Buckley
Movies like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” don’t come around all that often partly because of how projects are put together. Chances are the people brokering those deals — and determining who gets in the door and what stories are told — are white.
Pushes for greater diversity onscreen have been mirrored in some Hollywood corridors of power with varying degrees of effort and success. But the number of partners and department heads of color at talent agencies, those hypercompetitive firms where careers traditionally start in mailrooms or assistants’ pools, remains vanishingly low. Of the hundreds of film and television representatives working at the four powerhouses — Creative Artists Agency, ICM Partners, United Talent Agency and William Morris Endeavor — just a few dozen are black. (They’re also tracked by the website Diverse Representation.) “Unfortunately, you become used to being one of a few, if not the only one,” D.C. Wade of WME said.
Here, seven black agents — six with major agencies, one who runs her own boutique company — speak candidly about the barriers they have faced, the isolation they have felt, and the changes they are beginning to see.
BRANDON LAWRENCE (C.A.A.; agent since 2016; clients include the producers Misha Green, Mara Brock Akil and Will Packer) You have to subsidize a child who wants to work in entertainment. It takes a level of socioeconomic sufficiency that isn’t consistently typical for many families of color. Even mine. They weren’t able to bankroll me the entire time. I was in L.A. without a job, staying on my frat brothers’ couch. A lot of people of color in the assistants’ pools are first-generation college students. When they go back and tell their parents, “I don’t want to be a doctor or engineer, I want to push a mail cart,” the families are like, “What?”
ANDREA NELSON MEIGS (ICM; agent since 2000; clients include the performers Beyoncé Knowles, Ellen Burstyn and J. Cole) Not a lot of people of color know what being an agent is, who have aunts, uncles or cousins who are agents. Once you know about it, how do you get in? Once you get in, how do you keep them there? I’m from L.A., so I lived at home when I was in the mailroom. I was never making enough money to live on my own.
TIAUNA JACKSON (The Jackson Agency owner; agent since 2014; clients include the actors Sam T. West, Arthur Richardson and Lucy Boryer) A lot of times those people of color at top agencies are the cream of the crop — they went to Stanford, Princeton, elite schools. I think especially people of color had to come from those backgrounds to even get in. I went to Chapman University. It’s a good school, but it’s not Ivy League. I was never able to get into the mailroom programs at the top-tier places. I’m told I’m not the right fit, and we kind of know what that is code for. I’m self-taught. I have to fight every day just to make $50. I have sobering moments of truth when interns I trained are now at those top-tier agencies. Both of those people are Caucasian.You have 4 free articles remaining.Subscribe to The Times
LORRIE BARTLETT (ICM; agent since 1993; clients include the stars Michael Keaton, Regina King and Lucy Liu) There was no beacon for me to follow. I had parents who could help, not a ton, but I lived at home a couple of years longer. I worked really hard. Maybe as women, as people of color, we have to go one step further — 10 steps, 15 steps further — just to show our worth.
NELSON MEIGS When I was coming up, most people of color were dual degree, having gone to business school or law school. I think there is just the perception of, “Wow, if they’ve accomplished all of that, they are likely capable of handling the job of being an agent.”
ASHLEY HOLLAND (WME; agent since 2013; clients include the director Boots Riley and the stars Halle Berry and Janelle Monáe) High-achieving people of color today, coming out of universities — tech, financial service, Fortune 500s, every industry is recruiting them aggressively. Agencies are not participating in that kind of ecosystem. Historically, agencies hired friends or family of people in the business, until there was an infrastructural shift to focus on diversity. I was the beneficiary of that.
Lorrie Bartlett of ICM Partners, left; Brandon Lawrence of Creative Artists Agency; and J.B. Fitzgerald of United Talent Agency.CreditCreditPhotographs by Erik Carter for The New York Times