Mansplaining Diversity on ‘Project Greenlight’

It was an ugly moment. It was the kind of moment that, however quickly it passed by, you knew instantly that it would stir controversy thanks to the unfortunate truth it uncovered. And it has, deservedly so.

On last night’s Season Four premiere of HBO’s Project Greenlight, the judging panel tasked with selecting the right person to direct their broad romantic comedy script – Not Another Pretty Woman – started to discuss their favorites within the top ten directors. The conversation was genial and professional. They discussed the screenplay and their desire to select someone who would bring out the best in the clearly underdeveloped work. Hopefully they were also looking for someone to rework that awful title.

And then it happened.

Here’s the situation. Line producer Effie Brown advocated for Leo and Kristen, a white woman and a Vietnamese man, anticipating they would bring sensitivity and the delicate handling required for one of the script’s female characters – Harmony, a black prostitute. She very eloquently urged her producing partners to think about selecting a more diverse director who would consider such issues in their interpretation of the script. Matt Damon interrupted her, reminding Brown that Leo and Kristen were the only two who fully embraced the script as is. And then he said this…

“And when we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show… Do you want the best director?”

Yeah… Effie Brown reacted professionally, but even she was taken aback by the display.

I did not include the scene in my immediate review of the episode, and that bothered me all day. I had a few very specific reasons for excluding it. I didn’t have an advanced copy of the episode, so it was late last night when I finished watching it. I was lucky to bang out my review as quickly as I did. The scene wasn’t the kind of water cooler moment you want to react to quickly. Thanks to the “now-ness” of the Internet, reactions all have to be instantaneous these days, leaving little time for contemplation or reflection. Given the powder keg nature of the scene, reflection and thoughtfulness would only contribute positively to the overall conversation.

So I chose to wait it out. To let it marinate. My opinion on the scene hasn’t changed, but hopefully my words are more thoughtful than my knee-jerk reaction last night would have been. I’ve gotten in trouble before for quick takes. I didn’t want that to happen this time.

Do I think Matt Damon is a bad person? Absolutely not. Do I think he’s a product of the omnipresent Hollywood culture? Yes I do. Most likely realizing the impact of what he said and how a team of reality TV producers would edit it (they didn’t), he filmed a separate segment to clarify the intent of his statement. Basically, he uses the old (white) Hollywood adage that the best person should get the job, and it would corrupt the integrity of Project Greenlight to make their ultimate selection based on any other criteria.

But that’s the problem. In my opinion, it wouldn’t corrupt the integrity of Project Greenlight at all. In fact, it would enhance the show’s reputation by potentially giving young, diverse filmmakers a leg up in an industry dominated by white men. Those who pay attention have all see the statistics of the members who make up the Academy. But just think how revolutionary it would have been for Project Greenlight to flip the script and cast someone different behind the camera. Damon mentions diversity comes in casting, not behind the camera, which comes dangerously close to mirroring an old phrase I’d heard many times growing up in the South – effectively “black folks are good for entertaining.” Damon wasn’t trying to be outwardly racist, but he clearly did not see the value in looking for a different perspective behind the camera.

Just imagine if a non-white, non-male teenager had seen a Project Greenlight Season Four that featured someone more like them and less like the standard Hollywood power types. Just imagine someone growing up inspired by the next Ava DuVernay or Carl Franklin. In twenty years, think of the wonderfully diverse films that would produce. If only we could inspire those who are too often ignored. Think what a cinematic world that would create.

Instead, we get Matt Damon mansplaining diversity to a black filmmaker, and an angry white male winning the directing slot in Project Greenlight. That’s not shocking or surprising in the least. It’s kind of what I’ve come to expect from Hollywood today. What was shocking (and disappointing) was the brutal efficiency Matt Damon used to so quickly dismiss the idea of selecting a contest winner based on their ability to bring a broad perspective – diversity – to the project.

Project Greenlight remains a class act when compared to the broad field of reality television programming. In fact, I give it props for pulling actual truth within the confines of the reality TV genre. Matt Damon, however, is less so, and I hope this incident causes him to reconsider his position of privilege  in Hollywood and support someone from a broader and more diverse background. It’s not simply affirmative action.

It’s simply in support of a more colorful canvas of cinema.

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