Get Lifted's John Legend, Mike Jackson Talk State of Black Cinema and Status of 'Jingle Jangle' Sequel

John Legend Mike Jackson
Joe Pugliese; Mike Rosenthal

In just eight years, John Legend and Mike Jackson (with partner Ty Stiklorius) have won a slew of awards for content from their Get Lifted Film Co. This week, they will be gifted another accessory thanks to the Critics Choice Association which is honoring Legend and Jackson with The Producers Award during the 3rd annual Celebration of Black Cinema.

Tuesday's ceremony follows another banner year for Get Lifted. The company's recent releases include Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, the documentary Giving Voice, the docu-series Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, the comedy series Sherman's Showcase and the competition showcase Rhythm + Flow, among others. Legend and Jackson spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the year in Black cinema, how they know when something is a Get Lifted project and the latest rumors regarding a potential Jingle Jangle sequel.

You've won many awards over the past eight years. What does it mean to receive one dedicated to Black cinema?

Legend: We're grateful because it's always been part of our mission to tell our story, to highlight creatives whether are they're writers or filmmakers, to make content that makes us proud and is unapologetically representing our culture. To be recognized for that work and for staying true to what I mentioned, it's a very gratifying thing.

Mike, you've talked about being unapologetically Black in what you do. What does that mean to you?

Jackson: What it means to me is not being apologetic about your blackness. Blackness comes in many forms and many personalities. For so long, Hollywood would hold Black culture in very few prototypes. For us, we wanted to create a company that created a product that highlighted the entire Black experience, showing it in its entirety. Being unapologetically Black means showing all of our Blackness and not just fragmented parts of it.

This is a joint award but I wanted to see if I could put you on the spot and ask you, Mike, what makes John a great producer? And John, I'll flip it and ask what makes Mike a great producer.

Jackson: What makes John a great producer is just who he is as a human being. Anyone who follows John's career knows that he is much more than a singer-songwriter. For lack of a better phrase, he's a man of the people. He's someone who cares immensely about humanity. He cares about how people are received. That sense of who he is allows him to not only curate great material but to treat that material with care. For him, that's the biggest thing he brings to the table outside of his platform. As a human, he brings his humanity. That, as his partner, is something I'm so grateful for because it allows us to tell stories in the way we do.

That's so nice. John, may I ask you to return the favor.

Legend: What makes Mike so great at what he does...he is really great at cultivating relationships with creatives. And he's able to do it in a very non-sleazy, Hollywood way. He's a really good collaborator with creatives and with our writers, directors, actors. People just enjoy being around him. They love his energy and how persistent and hardworking he is. He's just a joy to be around. It makes him such an attractive person for everyone we're collaborating with. What's also very important is just how much grit and determination he has. When he wants to get something done, he pushes for it. He'll charm you, he'll convince you, he'll control you, he'll do whatever he needs to do to make it happen. That kind of character is important when you're trying to get big things done.

Part of what makes a good producer is getting a yes where there is a no. Can you think of a time at Get Lifted over these past eight years when you were facing what felt like an insurmountable no, but you turned it around?

Legend: We were just telling the story of how he convinced me to even start Get Lifted. He'll probably tell you that probably felt like an insurmountable no at first. I didn't see what I would bring to film and TV. I'm born and raised as a musician and that's where I made most of my career. He was telling me that we should start this production company because he'd been working in TV and film for a while and thought we could collaborate and do something even bigger and better. At first, it didn't make sense that I had anything to offer but he was able to convince me to get involved. I'm so glad he did. We've created something really beautiful that we're both proud of.

Mike, what about John made you not want to let him get away?

Jackson: I needed him, quite frankly, and I believed in our friendship. At the core of everything that we do, as far as what people see optically in the projects, is good taste. I needed that balance. I needed someone to run ideas with and I needed his power and muscle in the community. There are so many people that come here wanting to produce. I was fortunate enough that I was a working producer and doing pretty well. But to get to the level that I wanted to achieve and the level that we would discuss wanting to achieve, I felt like I needed John by my side. I wanted to have a partner and why not actually go after one of your closest friends, somebody that you already trust with.

Get Lifted is known for its diverse slate. You guys do stage shows, documentaries, big musicals, reality events, TV dramas, you even have a sports drama with Steph Curry. When do you know something is a Get Lifted project?

Jackson: We use, within the company, a term called the mic test. Not mic checks, like a microphone test. It's how when John, being who he is and how he maneuvers through the world, at any given moment can have a mic in front of his face being asked questions. I never want to put him in a position where he's not speaking proudly of the things we're building at Get Lifted. For me, knowing who he is and what he represents and the level of which he lives his life, I know that our projects have to match that or else they're not worthy of his time and our time.

You're receiving this award at a time when there has been a lot to celebrate in terms of Black cinema: Jingle Jangle, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Da Five Bloods, Judas and the Black Messiah, One Night in Miami, Soul, I could go on. Is this coincidence? Or a sign of what's to come in a more inclusive Hollywood?

Legend: It's been building. There are multiple things going on at the same time. Some of it started when people were tweeting things like #OscarsSoWhite several years ago. Some of it started with the actual Black Lives Matter movement and the increased attention and awareness that's created. We've always been here. There's been plenty of filmmakers, writers and directors that have something to say, and now they're getting more opportunities. That, combined with the fact that there are more channels for distribution, there's so many different ways to get your content out there. It gives a wider range of voices the ability to find an outlet than there ever were. Combine that with social and political change we've been talking about, and it's creating an environment that's much more promising to be a Black creative right now.

I wanted to ask specifically about Jingle Jangle. There was so much love online for the film and how it changed representation. What did that mean to you personally and what do you think its impact will be long-term?

Legend: I loved it. We are consumers now of a lot of kids content, with kids ages four and two. Mike just had a child recently, so he's entering that market. In general, there's just not enough content out there that shows Black people in heroic positions, that shows us as leaders with ingenuity and creativity, girls who are good at math, and all the amazing things we saw on Jingle Jangle. There's just not a lot of content like that out there. That's not the only reason that should exist. It needs to be good. It needs to be entertaining. It needs to be high quality in every way.

Being able to create something with those kinds of images that are so rarely seen was very exciting for us and it made me proud that I could show it to my daughter. It'd be something that daughters all around the world would be able to see and connect with too.

Jackson: One of the greatest things about that movie for me was the universality of it. I got emails and text messages from so many people of all races of their little children singing the songs. I got a text two days ago from someone: "Christmas is over, but it's still the number one movie in our house for our kids." The fact that it touched so many people in such a significant way is the greatest takeaway of all for me.

People want a sequel, they want a stage show. Is there more life in the Jingle Jangle universe?

Jackson: We hope so. We believe there are a lot of opportunities for the sequel. We really would love to see this make it to Broadway. We produced a few Broadway plays, so we know how that works. This is built for Broadway. We're all ready. David Talbert and his wife, Lyn Talbert, and the whole creative team is definitely ready to push forward, but ultimately it comes down to Netflix. Hopefully, they'll call us and ask them to do it.

How has the pandemic affected Get Lifted's slate?

Legend: We had to place a few things back. Certainly, all the productions couldn't happen as they were planned. We have a big competition called Rhythm + Flow, and we were planning to do that in 2020, but we couldn't. There are some things that had to get pushed a little bit. A lot of our work is before filming, so a lot of that can still happen in the pandemic. We can still take a lot of meetings with writers to write and plan.

You'll have a new award to add to your collection soon. Where do you guys keep your awards?

Jackson: I don't have as many as John, so I don't need as much space. I have six or seven awards, so I just have a really cool shelf in the living room. I keep the Emmys on the hood of my car, just so everyone sees when I'm driving. I should have a room in my house where I keep them all. [Laughs]

John, what about you?

Legend: Anyone who's seen me live stream from my piano, they've seen them behind there. We're between houses now. We're about to move into another place in the spring and I think they'll still be right by the piano. I figure I keep them close to where I earned most of them — that makes the most sense.

John, I can't let you go without saying congratulations on performing on such a historic inauguration day in Washington, D.C. What was the most memorable moment for you?

Legend: First of all, the producers did a wonderful job putting together a show with artists all over the country and ordinary people from all over the country who were being celebrated for all the hard work they do. I was just honored to be a part of it. Being there, as only one of the few performers who actually got to be live at the Lincoln Memorial, wow, that was magical. Standing right behind Kamala Harris, after she had just become the first Black and South Asian woman elected to that office, was pretty stunning. It was a magical moment that made me feel a rush of pride for our country and hope that the future can be better than what we've gone through in the past few years.