On Matt Damon & Effie Brown: Who Is Responsible For Diversifying Hollywood?
I hate to give Matt Damon any more attention on this, but after Ben Affleck garnered, as my friend says, “the sidest of eyes” for trying to cover up his slave-owning ancestors on PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” the latest episode of “White Guys I Can No Longer Love” has hit me right in the gut.
See, after Affleck pretended he was a special snowflake with no legacy of slavery on his back, there was this quiet shift of fandom over to Matt Damon, this strange agreement and/or hope that marked him with the at-least-he-doesn’t-do-hipster-racist-shit stamp of cautious approval.
Now, here comes HBO’s “Project Greenlight,” a show I’m quite sure nobody even watches, featuring an episode in which Matt Damon tries to school Effie Brown on how diversity works. Effie Brown, a black woman and acclaimed producer, literally famous for producing a movie about white people who don’t understand racism and don’t understand that they don’t understand racism (it’s called “Dear White People”— watch it!) – it seems that Matt Damon felt she was unaware that racism in Hollywood had been solved.
In a nutshell, this is my version of what happened when Brown, Affleck and Damon (along with this season’s finalists, there to present their entries to Hollywood producers) got into it over one of the films in particular:
Brown: Hello, group of white men and one white woman filmmakers! Since there’s only one black character in this particular film, and she’s a prostitute getting slapped by her white pimps — do you think it might be a good idea, taking into account the racially charged implications of something like that, to perhaps consider adding a black or POC member to your team who can handle this with care?
Damon: What? Nooooooooo. They don’t need to do that.
Brown: Well, I as a woman of color and an experienced producer, am very attuned to how the lack of diversity behind the camera has had a negative effect on how underrepresented people and cultures are portrayed on screen.
Damon: Nah. As long you cast a few Black people in the movie then BAM. Diversity.
Then Effie gave him a look that I can only describe as Lord Jesus, don’t let me act a fool on camera. During all of this, Ben Affleck’s soul slid out of his body, off the couch, and slithered away, leaving a shell of a man who was not ready to be the target of any more racial controversy – and still, Damon chittered away.
Damon wrapped up the diversity conversation by saying something about hiring people of color for the sake of people of color can compromise the ‘integrity’ of the project—Jesus be a broken record for every time I’ve heard that song and dance, for every time any person of color has heard that same ol’ same ol’. It’s no wonder the clip went viral, the backlash was instant, and #damonsplaining trended worldwide, eviscerating him for his actions.
There have been plenty of takes and perspectives on Damon’s actions against Brown. Was he right or wrong? Is he racist or naïve? Is it a “don’t hate the player, hate the game” type of thing where the system is racist and that’s not Damon’s fault?
As I began my own unpacking, it appeared to me that it could be all of those things or something else, that Matt Damon fell right into the trap of his own gleaming blind spot perpetuated by a racist system that he has benefitted from and thus has never had to evaluate – but then who is held responsible for diversifying Hollywood? Is that really Damon’s cross to bear?
Despite being a grown woman who pays bills and everything, I can never take a step without consulting my mother, and media has always been right up her alley. She’s an advertising mogul who is responsible for many of the iconic taglines that penetrate the heart of American culture, like a swig of coke and a bowl of mac and cheese. So I picked up the phone, and as soon as she answered, I began whining about white supremacy and the media and how hard it is to be a Black woman writer and can I stop adulting now and return to the ’90s where all I had to do was watch “Doug” and eat fruit snacks?
My mom responded very casually by telling me a story about the greenlighting of a particular commercial she’d written in 1974 for Procter and Gamble. She’d been tasked to storyboard what’s call a “pool of three” – to write three commercials all to be reviewed, and if approved, aired nationally –and for one commercial, she did something crazy. She decided to write it with characters that looked like “people I know.” In other words, in 1974, my mother wrote a commercial with black people in it, and it was utterly unheard of.
“After the commercial was shot, everyone in the office came running to me asking who gave me permission to cast black people in the commercial,” my mother told me. “I told them, I didn’t know I needed permission. Co-workers told me the client would never greenlight a project so radical, but Procter and Gamble did. They ran it.” She then abruptly skipped to some other story about a man falling facedown in a pool at a party with thirty thousand dollars in his jacket pocket, but I had the answer I needed from her.
I mentally picked at the words used to criticize her choices – first, “permission” and “radical,” and then later, “innovative” and “iconic”— and, I swear, these are the same words my Intro to Creative Writing class used to describe Black Beauty, a story written from the perspective of a horse. I can’t quite grasp what it feels like to be so oblivious to another culture that the mere sudden existence in the white periphery can cause absolute mayhem in the brain. As a woman of color and a writer, I’ve been inundated by novels written from the white perspective; I’d go so far to say that the first novel I ever read by a black writer was in high school, Native Son, and it scared the hell out of me. This training created this dual consciousness that I believe all artists of underrepresented cultures possess: the skill to write from the dominant perspective, but the passion to write from their own.
We hammer through the cracks, like Shonda Rimes, and become pioneers for merely acknowledging that the face seen in the mirror is quite different than the norm. So is Matt Damon accountable for perspectives that are so unnatural to him and his peers that they’d need to be given permission to do so?
I’d rather focus less on Damon’s actions and more on Effie Brown, because in the end, her words were the ultimate lesson. Women and people of color belong behind the camera as much as we do in front of it. We need to pick up our pens and write, learn to animate, learn how to light dark skin, or how to direct an entire set, and we don’t have to ask for permission.
All we need is the greenlight.
So let’s take it.
Carol H. Hood is a writer and professor who lives in about 3 different states while working on her novel, The Misadventures of Tip and JB Turner and her graphic novel, American Witch. Follow her snark shark ways at @carolhenny.