Project Greenlight Picked the Wrong Day to Start Caring About Diversity
Project Greenlight, that innovative early aughts method of building terrible movies from the ground up, is back on HBO, and it’s just the hot mess you hoped it would be. The season 4 premiere Sunday night featured job interviews with all of the finalists, and resulted in (spoiler alert) the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon-led panel of judges selecting Jason Mann, an auteur douchebag so pretentious, he doesn’t pronounce the “L” in Massengil.
This was shocking for a number of reasons, including that Mann spent his entire interview telling the producers how badly their script sucked, and that they’re picking a self-styled artiste to direct a Farrelly Brothers movie. Seconds after they announced him as the winner, Mann demanded to shoot the movie on film, and to fire the writer, Pete Jones. These are all the things I love about the show, because watching these guys beat each other senseless with their competing brands of mediocrity is the entire point of Project Greenlight. The director always has a grand vision, the producers always hollow it out, the end result is always garbage, and it’s always great fun to watch it get made.
Right off the bat, this season of Project Greenlight featured the most uncomfortable, cringe-inducing conversation on diversity you’re likely to see outside of Jerry Seinfeld‘s car. The aforementioned panel of judges was comprised of Affleck, Damon, a Farrelly brother, several other random white people, and Dear White People producer Effie Brown, who tried to bring up diversity when Damon and Affleck both picked the same four white guys for their shortlist. This bit of the uncomfortable exchange lit up Twitter, along with accusations of man-and-white-splaining:
Matt Damon speaking over the only black person in the room so he can explain diversity to her is SO WHITE it hurts pic.twitter.com/iaQStYZ0ij
— Glen Coco (@MrPooni) September 14, 2015
Effie Brown’s reaction is getting a lot of play, but the other reactions in the room, and Damon’s explanation, are equally noteworthy. Here’s a sample:
Damon’s response, that they needed to select the winner “based on merit,” is reflective of a Jupiter-sized blind spot that many white entertainers have about diversity. More broadly, it illustrates the fundamental misunderstanding that fuels so much white resentment, that diversity and merit are somehow incompatible. The idea is that in order to achieve diversity, you must necessarily ignore merit, rather than that if you fail to achieve diversity, then perhaps there is some flaw in your judgment of merit.
Without getting too far into the weeds, Damon was arguing that the only finalist with any “diversity,” the directing team of Kristen Brancaccio and Vietnamese-American Leo Kei Angelos, loved the script as-is, and so maybe white people can be sensitive, while Brown pointed out that Brancaccio actually had raised the issue of the female character’s treatment during their interview. In the full segment, all the white people in the room, including Farrelly, hilariously proclaim that they all just hate the way the character was written.
But what the show didn’t really address is that the finalists consisted of two Asian guys, three women with male directing partners, and the rest were white dudes. If the idea is to find someone to direct from the “Harmony” character’s lived experience, the pickings there were pretty darn slim. In the micro, Damon’s calculation was correct, that with a dozen finalists remaining, you really do need to go with the best filmmaker (minutes before selecting Sergei Eisenstein to direct a cinematic fart joke, but still).
It is at this point, though, that Damon and Affleck ought to stop and think for a minute, and wonder if the process that led them to a top ten without a single black director or woman of color was really “based solely on merit,” or whether it was flawed in some way. Are there really no black filmmakers with the skill to match Beanie Bros? Maybe someone could have noticed a skew in submissions at some point, and tried a new approach to outreach, and/or maybe get a broader array of opinion on the submissions they had?
The Project Greenlight team does deserve credit for showing these tough moments, which ironically make clear that they at least used pure merit in deciding to hire Effie Brown as a line producer, and not as the unit diversity czar. It’s a testament to her skill that her colleagues only all seemed to notice she was the only black person involved in the project until they were all in that room together.
That also raises the question of why Effie Brown seemed shocked that a Farrelly Brothers movie fronted by two dudebros from Southie might not end up as the picture of diversity, and/or might not be sensitive in its portrayal of women. I suppose it’s refreshing, in a way, that Brown was apparently as “colorblind” in accepting the project as its producers were in selecting a winner. She wasn’t selected because she’s a black filmmaker, she was selected because she’s a successful filmmaker they could afford, and she didn’t take the job to change the world, she did it to make a movie.
It will be interesting to see how Effie Brown’s influence pays off when it comes time to cast and crew the film, but something tells me that Damon and Affleck picked the one guy who will take advice about as well as they did. Despite their claims of “merit,” it’s tough to look at all the finalists’ submissions and not conclude that Damon and Affleck picked the cinematic enfant terrible that they once saw themselves as, rather than the best person to direct a Farrelly Brothers comedy.
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