Christina Jackson’s acting career was a happy accident. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, she had no interest in sports, but her love of reading prompted her seventh-grade teacher to suggest the drama club. “The first play, I played Frenchy in Grease, and I was terrible because I was so nervous,” she tells ESSENCE. “I vowed I would never let that happen again.” After learning to work through her nerves, Jackson embraced the energy of the theater. “You can hear the laughs. You can hear the tears —the sniffles,” she reflects. “You can hear everything in real-time, even though you’re supposed to block all of that out. I think there’s something very connected about theater.”
Those first plays in elementary school invigorated The Good Fight actress’s love of storytelling. For over a decade, she’s worked on series like Outsiders, Boardwalk Empire and Deception. But now, in her upcoming role in the war epic Devotion, where she stars opposite Jonathan Majors, Jackson is starting to feel a fundamental shift.
“When I was starting out until pretty recently, I was the only Black girl on set or one of two,” she says. “That trickled down from who was in charge of doing my hair, how I was dressed, or how I was written for. When you talk about Black women, we have to prove that we’re not monolithic. There isn’t just one way that you can show Black women. It’s just a matter of getting those people to write and getting those stories to be heard on the platforms that we have available to us. I’m more excited now than I have been in a very long time.”
Devotion is based on the real-life story of Jesse Brown (Majors), who became the first Black aviator in naval history. In the film, Jackson portrays Daisy Brown, Jesse’s wife, partner, advocate, lover, and friend. The film is an adaptation of Adam Makos’ 2017 book, Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice.
Much of Devotion centers on Jesse’s experiences in the Navy, the Korean War, and his friendship with fellow fighter pilot Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). However, director J.D. Dillard also infuses Daisy and Jesse’s deep love and romance throughout the film. “When you first get to the page in the script where we’re meeting Daisy in the house, she’s described as Jesse’s anthem and as his heartbeat,” Jackson reveals. “That made me sit up a little bit. I had never read an introduction to a character like that.”
Typically in historical epics with male characters as the focal points, their family lives can feel like an afterthought. In Devotion, Jesse and Daisy’s relationship is just as central as the bond Jesse forms with his fellow wingmen. “It’s just them playing in the living room, running around, because they were young,” Jackson says. “Just how beautiful the conversation and the dialogue are between them — how real it is, how honest it is, that’s what kept me turning those pages.”
Daisy is more than just a navy wife; she’s also a contemporary woman in a very modern marriage. When Jesse arrives home in the film, Daisy is painting the living room. Without missing a beat, she prompts Jesse to begin dinner for the family. “Originally, I wanted to wear pants for it, but Jessica, Daisy and Jesse’s granddaughter, was like, ‘Oh, no, Daisy would have never worn pants.’ But, in reading the book and listening to interviews, Jesse did a lot for Daisy. He was a man, and it wasn’t anything for him to get in there and cook while she was doing her thing. You can say that the relationship is unconventional, but it’s just two people figuring out how it works for them. That’s the one thing that I enjoyed about playing Daisy. She had a life that was full and robust outside of him. Also, because she is the first and only Black naval aviator wife, it’s hard for her to be in those spaces with others who aren’t like her because their husbands aren’t going through the same things mentally that Jesse is going through. That’s what pushes them further and further into each other.
Jackson and Majors bonded off-screen, which enabled their characters’ connection to feel seamless and authentic. “I remember Jonathan said, ‘Daisy is a sanctuary to Jesse,’” Jackson says. “He took me for ice cream. He took me to sit in the park and chill out and talk. He took me to one of the best restaurants in Savannah because he heard the food was really good. We sat, and we talked about Jesse and Daisy. I remember any question I had about Jesse character-wise; Jonathan had an answer. It was refreshing and very much a relief because we are playing real people, but we’re playing real people from 70 years ago. They’re not here anymore to be able to guide us through this.”
While Jackson and Majors couldn’t speak to Jesse and Daisy, they were able to rely on what they learned from Mankos’ book and the Browns’ family members. “They had been through so much together,” Jackson reveals. “They had been through many terrible racist things together in Hattiesburg and a couple of other places where they traveled. It makes you stronger, but also, I think for Daisy, I wanted to show the softness and the vulnerability because there is strength in that, too.”
Though Jackson is the self-proclaimed period piece queen, she is also currently starring in Apple TV+’s modern-day drama series Swagger, inspired by the life of NBA star Kevin Durant. In the series, she portrays Tonya Edwards, the wife of youth basketball coach Ike Edwards (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). “Tonya is a support system for Ike in a way that most people don’t understand,” Jackson explains. “When you love someone that has worked very hard in their life to achieve something, then they don’t achieve it, that comes with a certain hurt and certain pain. To be able to come out of the period pieces that I do and to put Tonya back on, I’m always happy. She’s one of my favorite characters to play, just because she represents strength and honesty and being that cool-ass Black wife. I love how intentional Reggie [Rock Bythewood] is with being clear about who Tonya is, how she thinks, and how she walks in the world as a wife, a mom, and somebody in the community. I know plenty of Tonyas. In certain spaces, I have been Tonya. So, there’s that thing where she doesn’t feel like a character to me.”
Though Jackson is gearing up for the Devotion premiere, she’s also thrilled to be starring in Netflix’s forthcoming Shirley Chisholm biopic, Shirley starring Regina King in the titular role. “Regina as Shirley is absolutely incredible,” Jackson exclaims. “We have an amazing cast. Writing and directing by John Ridley. You could see the enjoyment of him being able to recreate this time.” Not many details about the film centering on the first Black Congresswoman and the first Black woman to run for President of the United States have been revealed. However, Jackson gave ESSENCE an exclusive about her character.
“In Shirley, I play Barbara Lee, a young mother, a young college student who saw the world being changed in real-time,” she explains. “Again, there’s pressure on me because Barbara Lee is a real person. There is video and footage of her journey to where she is now. In talking to her, I can see the light in her eyes when she talks about Shirley Chisholm and what she meant to her. When you hear Barbara Lee talk about Shirley talking about feminism and intersectionality 50 years ago, it’s a wonder that more people don’t know her name.”
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Films like Devotion and Shirley are imperative so that as a community we continue to speak the names of heroes like Jesse Brown and Shirley Chisholm; while telling their stories. “We should know Jesse’s name. We should know many more names than are prevalent,” Jackson says. “I’m very excited for when Shirley does come out because the performances, costumes, hair, everything just gives you the tools to step into that time period and to be able to tell this story as honestly as I thought we could.”