Last night, controversy brewed on Twitter over a scene from the HBO documentary series Project Greenlight. Show co-creator Matt Damon was accused of interrupting and disregarding the thoughtful observation of fellow, talented, filmmaker Effie Brown (of Dear White People fame and who joins the team this year as Greenlight‘s line producer for the winning director of the competition).
Feminist site Jezebel.com made the biggest noise of the incident, by titling their piece, by Kara Brown,: “Matt Damon Interrupts Successful Black Woman Filmmaker To Explain Diversity To Her.” A troll headline that absolutely had me swerving my mouse to click on it to read it. I quickly found out that I not only would be in total agreement, my reaction was just as visceral as Effie Brown’s based on Damon’s alarmingly tommyrot brush-over on the representation of the one Black character in the chosen script named Harmony.
I jolted at what Damon had said to Brown the moment he was done. To suggest so adamantly that diversity matters most on-screen and not as much behind the scenes was so just wrong. It was damn near insulting to the continuous fight artists of color have in getting their stories told and acknowledged.
But. The clip that I embedded above and that was shared all over the Internet was edited. What Damon said, he definitely said it, but Brown’s fuller estimation of why it would greatly matter that the director or directors of the questionable script of Not Another Pretty Girl be a woman, of color, or obtain access to such specific experiences, was cut short.
The suggestion that Damon made in that diversity is resolved on mainly topical terms (casting a Black or Asian actor with actual lines to say) was a shocker, unexpected and yet an honest look at why sometimes White filmmakers really just don’t have the agency to create fully developed people of color characters.
The hot mess of a film like 2004’s Crash couldn’t exemplify the above statement more and why it is imperative to do the research of the nuanced experiences of being Black in America, of color in America, and/or an immigrant in America. Paul Haggis‘ script for Crash was nothing short of being a solipsistic, White guilt take on racism and this accepted condition lingers on in that the POV (point-of-view) of a White artist or filmmaker receive the most coverage when it comes to race relations. (Crash frustratingly won Best Picture at the 2005 Academy Awards, while fourteen years before, the blistering racial heat wave of Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing only received two nominations, and neither was for Best Picture).
Having a Black character or people of color on-screen isn’t enough to appease your potentially non-White viewers. The back-end of the existence of such characters and how realistic or sensitive they are to the lives they are representing matter and are worthy of tones that are well-written and rounded.
After last night’s interesting debate that resulted in the hashtag of #Damonsplaining (a branch off “Whitesplaining”, when often well-meaning White people try to explain what is or isn’t racism or discriminatory), I watched the entire first episode of season four of Project Greenlight, that included the eye-opening conversation. I found the show at times hard to watch until Brown came on-screen. Greenlight edges on painful if you are of color and love film just as much as the next Star Wars geek because from scene to scene it can be incredibly White, heteronormative and male. It’s no wonder that Lee Daniels, co-creator of that little struggling Fox series Empire insists of an all-Black roster of TV writers for his show because “I hate white people writing for black people; it’s so offensive.”
A White male writer may just not be able to fully conclude why specific, categorical attributes like race, culture, gender identification and sexual orientation are integral to the everyday lives of others, but to them, to us, they are very important. And when it comes to women and Black women stories being told on film…? While Black women are not monolithic, I can still trust and believe that as long there is a Black woman or woman of color on set, that the nuances of a character, such as Harmony, would still be in good hands.
The New York Times and VOGUE could’ve saved their own highbrow backsides a couple of times this year if they actually had more Black people, women, on their masthead. Every couple of weeks it seems another White writer of theirs embarrasses themselves in how uncouth they are when talking about or including the state of racism or racial relations. (This was loudly showcased in 2014 when Alessandra Stanley began her profile on TV titan Shonda Rhimes with: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.” Can you believe that the article with that intro is available for your reading pleasure online?)
Project Greenlight did become more watchable as it went along. By the time the entire judging team met with the finalists, along with mainly White men, another woman joined Effie Brown, Jennifer Todd.
After meeting with the directing duo of Kristen Brancaccio, a Caucasian woman, and Leo Kei Angelos, an American of Vietnamese descent, a clip followed that had Brown explaining herself why diversity and racial integration were so key to her during any film-making process.
“Diversity is very important to me. The films that I typically do are films about someone who is outside of the mainstream and most times it is a woman or people who have been marginalized. Growing up in the ’70s, there weren’t a lot of positive images of women or people of color. That’s what I noticed growing up. We were either gangsters, prostitutes, drug addicts. Things of that nature. This is an opportunity where I can change that.”
Writing about what you know is classic advice from novelists to screenwriters. And when any of us include characters that are not like us, whether by lifestyle, culture, or racial identity, the decision can be applauded because true walks of life have always been a gumbo pot even if the kitchen wasn’t on your own block. But the pure reason why Damon’s comment was so conflicting is because White or Caucasian Americans can be oblivious to just how detrimental racism is. And while tons of people of color don’t honestly expect someone like him, despite his efforts in humanitarism and with African refugees, to thoroughly understand the plight, sometimes the blatant advertisement of being so aloof to how much racism and colorism and prejudice hurts is enough to make you itch and wonder how separated we really are.
After I read that Jezebel piece, I wrote a comment on Twitter about #Damonsplaining and got used as an example by someone named Jean Kalyx about being a “SJW.” “SJW” stands for “social justice warrior”, a mocking nickname for those that speak up against injustices online.
Kalyx tweeted out: “The war between White SJWs and Black SJWs simmers on.
Read our entire exchange by clicking on the link inside the Tweet, and witness how Kalyx was just as stubborn and ignorant in understanding what Effie Brown was expressing in Project Greenlight.