Telling Our Stories

If the Oscars are a coronation of Hollywood royalty, then last year’s Academy Awards marked the ascension of the appropriately named Charles D. King, one of the prime movers behind the movie, Judas and the Black Messiah, that made industry history as the first all-Black-produced nominee for Best Picture.

The dramatization of the life of a 1960s Black Panther leader did not win that award, but it did scoop two other Oscars from a total of six nominations (Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Song). Together with the Best Picture nod, those honors served as the most visible progress report to date on King’s vision to bring more diversity to the entertainment world.

It’s a story that almost sounds like an inspirational script in its own right—a young man with a long-term dream who works his way up from the mailroom to a position of great influence, only to walk away from it all and risk everything to start something on his own. In just a few short years, since founding his own MACRO media company (“A brand driven by people of color, telling stories of universal themes that inspire and connect”), King has earned a reputation for his creativity and courage and as someone to watch.

In pausing to speak with WayMaker Journal about his journey, King has insights and ideas to share with anyone pursuing a dream of their own. They come from someone who is “audacious” (The New York Times) and “known for innovative dealmaking and an eye for talent” (NPR), with projects from drama to documentary and television to movies. Among the latest: this fall’s release of They Cloned Tyrone, a science fiction comedy starring John Boyega, Jamie Foxx and Teyonah Parris, and a forthcoming five-part docuseries about the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

But his ambitious media mission almost never started. There was a time when King considered following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a doctor. On arriving at Vanderbilt University, however, he quickly learned from his first couple of science classes that he wasn’t cut out for the medical world. “This is not my passion,” he realized.

He studied political science instead, and after graduation went to work for a paper company in Stamford, Connecticut, for a couple of years, where he was the only African American executive in a division of around 3,000. Then he went to earn a law degree from Howard University before joining the iconic William Morris Agency in Hollywood.

Now called WME (William Morris Endeavor), it’s an integral character in the history of the movie world, the oldest agency around, with its famous begin-at-the-bottom mailroom entry point for newcomers, regardless of their credentials. “You have to start from the ground floor,” explains King, who spent nine months running around delivering mail before being offered a desk spot. “It’s where you pay your dues… you’re literally working 90, 100 hours a week, [being a] gofer, reading scripts at night, immersing yourself in the understanding of the bottom of the business.”

Pursuing a dream

King quickly made a name for himself. He was the first Black film/television agent in the history of the agency’s trainee program. He later became the first Black partner in the business’s 100-year history.

King quickly developed a gift for spotting other emerging talent. After only six months as an agent, he signed Walter Latham, the man behind the successful Kings of Comedy movie. Latham then alerted him to someone who was having a lot of success with his own plays—a largely unknown writer called Tyler Perry.

“You can have an intuition, but if you don’t know how to execute, what does that matter?”

King mentioned Perry while getting a haircut at a barber’s shop. “The lady three rows down said, ‘Tyler Perry?’ I was like, ‘What, you know him?’ They started telling all these things about these plays and how big [they were], and it was clear what a massive audience he had, but it hadn’t been brought into film and TV. So we put a team together.” In addition to helping break open opportunities for new talent like Perry, King also got to work with industry legends like Prince, Janet Jackson, and Oprah Winfrey.

While acknowledging he has a knack for spotting potential, King is quick to add that’s not enough on its own to ensure success. “It’s one thing to identify [possibilities], but then you also have to work to be a part of helping to shape and advance [them]. I was able to do that as an agent. I and my colleagues and partners are doing that at MACRO, with the work we’ve done with the incredible filmmakers that we’ve financed and produced their projects.”

That success is grounded in years of experience, from school through grinding his way up from the mailroom to negotiating and packaging projects. “Part of it is the business side,” says King. “You can have an intuition, but if you don’t know how to execute, what does that matter? So I’ve been able to do both with the combination of the two, but you’ve got to have the vision first.”

The business portion he refers to turns dreams into reality. It’s why one of MACRO’s divisions (in addition to film and television production, talent and content creator representation, and branding) is an affiliated venture firm, MaC Venture Capital. “I knew in launching MACRO that we were not looking to be just producers for hire; we’re building a media company of the future. We need to have not only capital to develop projects but also to finance production… for us to be empowered, to be able to tell our stories from our community.

“You’re not empowered if you only can tell a story by going to one of the major eight studios and have them greenlight something and tell you how it should be done, and here’s the small, allocated budget. We need to come from a place of being empowered in order to tell these stories, or to at least, in most cases, come to the table and sit alongside of them and say, ‘Why don’t we make this story?’”

That’s what they did with Judas and the Black Messiah, which MACRO financed along with Bron Studios, Participant, and Warner Bros. Two-thirds of the companies involved in MACRO’s venture capital efforts are led by women and people of color “and that is going to have a transformative impact on our communities,” says King. “Yes, we’re building MACRO… but I also wanted to be a part of creating change globally, economically for people of color, which is also part of our mission.”

“I have tried my best to stay exactly who I am and not be swayed by the Hollywood swirl.”

Keeping a compass

The tenacity that has fueled King’s rise can be traced back to his childhood. From a young age, his parents instilled in him the belief that he “could achieve anything.” That mantra was to be tested, though: starting in third grade, he found himself being ranked in lower academic levels (along with many other Black students, it transpired), prompting a battle by his parents to push for more opportunities for him. “By the time I got to high school, it was just reinforced and instilled in me… I was just working extra hard and making sure I was going to succeed.” Only when he was older did testing reveal that he had ADHD. “I didn’t know that was a condition I had.”

King finds motivation in opposition. He thinks back to “early on, people telling me what I couldn’t do… experiencing racism when I was 8 years old… Honestly, I’ve always been underestimated, always; from elementary school, high school, maybe even college, probably even law school.”

It continued through to the 2015 founding of MACRO, whose first major Hollywood studio release was Fences, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar).

Even with such A-list associations, some people were doubtful about King’s dream. “Oh, that’s great, Charles, OK, we’ll see how that goes,” he recalls as their attitude. “Seven-and-a-half years later, 15 Academy Award nominations, how we have scaled as a company… There were folks that just had no idea and, honestly, don’t realize that we’re just getting started.”

Mom and Dad were a big part of developing his confidence, as was his grandmother, who lived with the family from when King was 8. “The advice she gave me before I jumped in my U-Haul truck and drove out here [to California] was, ‘Charles, go out there and be yourself. They’ll have to love you.’ And honestly, from mailroom to partner to CEO of MACRO, I have maintained that and tried my best to stay exactly who I am and not be swayed by the Hollywood swirl of the things going on around me… to keep my compass.”

He learned about determination and drive from his parents. Dad was a pediatrician with his own practice, built “day by day, week by week.” Mom was a writer and artist who worked from home. “I had a very wonderful childhood,” King recalls. It wasn’t all blue skies, however. King’s parents divorced when he was in his early teens.

That change in circumstances meant there was no “silver spoon.” King started working at 13—cutting grass, babysitting, helping out at his father’s office, stints as a summer camp counselor and maintenance guy, stocking shelves at retail. “I worked my ass off,” he recalls. “I didn’t do the Jack and Jill [of America club activities] and a lot of those things that a lot of other maybe more upper-middle-class Black folks were doing,” he says. “Something about that work ethic and what was instilled early on in me, I think that’s been applied towards my educational background and my thirst and desire to make sure I’m achieving and the hunger that I’ve had.. I knew education was important.”

Paying your dues

Like any good filmmaker, King has a long list of people in his credits, those who helped shape and inspire him and played a significant role even if it was behind the scenes. The nods start close to home, with family including his psychologist sister. Then there’s Stacey Walker King, his wife and “life partner in every move, everything that we’ve done; we’ve been in partnership the last 21 years.”

King didn’t get to know BET founder Bob Johnson personally until recently but still cites the legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist as a major inspiration, along with the network’s former CEO Debra Lee. “They from afar had a huge impact on my trajectory.” Next up is the late business trailblazer Reginald Lewis, whose book, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? was influential.

When King moved to LA, leading entertainment lawyers Darrell Miller and Nina Shaw “really opened up doors” for him. They and others at William Morris “particularly played a transformative part… there were so many people that just mentored and supported me.”

What would King say to those who look at his career path and don’t want to start out in the mailroom like he did? “Do your research,” he advocates. “In every industry and every field there are different paths and no one way of getting there. But I also understood some of the hurdles for us, that we have to work 10 times harder, be 10 times smarter.”

He saw what happened to people who tried to skip a step in the traditional process of advancement; others typically dismissed their abilities or believed they hadn’t put in the necessary work. “And then they wouldn’t have the longevity,” he observes. “I knew in order to have the longevity, every one of them needed to see me go from the ground floor up just like they did. I needed to do better than all the folks I started with and keep excelling the way we always do and be smart about it.”

King pays tribute to those who “blazed the trail before me, that cracked enough holes in the windows” for him to follow, “and other people that mentored me, that saw something in me… There were lawyers and other folks in the industry; there were a few of the clients of the agency that said, ‘Why isn’t there a brother there? We like this brother, Charles. Why isn’t he on a desk yet?’” Another key factor cannot be ignored, he says: his faith.

”My word to the Gen Z millennials is you’ve gotta do your part. You’ve gotta pay your dues. Now, you don’t have to necessarily toil away for 20 years the way perhaps the older generation, even generations older than me, had to. But you’re still gonna have to pay some dues. And you’re gonna have to be smart about it… the likelihood of success is much more challenging if you don’t pay your dues.”

It’s something about committing yourself, being humble and being willing to roll up your sleeves. Yes, it can still happen for you in the early years, in the 20s, but you’ve still gotta pay your dues at some point.

Charles D. King: My WayMaker
I have been so blessed with great mentors. Tanya Heidelberg-Yopp was a vice president at MTV. I wrote her this crazy, four-page letter and her assistant, who I remember to this day, let me take an informational meeting with Tanya that turned into my internship at MTV the summer between my second and third years of law school. It was transformative to my life; it helped show me how big the world was, the opportunities there. That summer of ’95, when so much was happening at the height of hip-hop, I remember going to Biggie Small’s platinum party, the first time I met Diddy. It really inspired me. It made a difference. Tanya was 1000% a waymaker for me and made a huge impact.

From an interview with Louis Carr