Wednesday, September 16, 2015

'Damonsplaining' - Diversity Advice From Matt Damon

Damon explains diversity to a black woman as Affleck cringes
In recent months former Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal, actor/producer Mark Wahlberg and actor/director Ben Affleck have all made headlines for reasons that touch on delicate issues relating to race in America.

After the premiere of season four of HBO's Project Greenlight, the other night the subject of race is once again intersecting with the actions or words of a wealthy well-known Hollywood celebrity; this time it's actor /producer Matt Damon and the subject of diversity in film in the spotlight.

During the episode, as the panelists were discussing which director should be picked for a film project, African-American producer Effie Brown began to make the point that they should at least consider that a minority director might be best suited to sensitively handle scenes where the main character, a black female prostitute, is physically struck by a white male character.

Damon quickly interrupted her as she was talking and began to explain that diversity in film should start with casting; not with the creative talent behind the camera - Brown was completely dumbstruck by his comment but managed to keep her cool as Damon went on to explain that directors earn their chops on merit alone as if Hollywood is a meritocracy.

The LA Times offers some interesting perspective on the incident.
Now I don't for a second believe that Damon is a bigot or a racist or anything like that - but the way he spoke to Brown came off as remarkably condescending.

Producer Effie Brown
From my take, her reaction was not just about what he said to her specifically.

I think Brown was also blown away by how simplistic and naive Damon sounded and the fact that he didn't seem to realize it, or that he, a privileged and successful Hollywood A-List white male actor, seemed to be lecturing her on the issue of diversity in film.

Bear in mind Effie Brown (pictured left) is not just some "contestant nobody" picked to be on Project Greenlight, she's a successful film producer in her own right.

Most notably she produced the indie film hit Dear White People which was a hit at The Sundance Film Festival last year; the critically-acclaimed satire was also the directorial debut of 32-year old African-American director Justin Simien.  

Brown was making a valid point based on her own professional experience, and Damon's reaction ended up making a point about why diversity in Hollywood is still such an issue.

It seemed on some level that Damon honestly wanted to weigh in on the issue of diversity in film, and he was right in saying casting in front of the camera is where change needs to take place in American cinema.

But the moment he told a black female producer that casting behind the camera was not where that change needed to take place, the truth is he came off as seeming really uninformed about the issue; and social media quickly took him to task for it.

The hashtag #Damonsplaining quickly blew up on Twitter as people began to comment about the absurdity of Damon explaining diversity to a black female film professional. 

If you've seen the clip, what's sadly funny about it is watching Ben Affleck's reaction as Damon is speaking; look at Affleck's eyes in the picture above, he looks like he wants to sink into the couch or tap Damon on the shoulder quietly.

It was only a few months ago back in April that Affleck was making headlines and adding a new dimension to the ongoing national dialog on race in America for his request for PBS not to air an episode of the genealogy program Finding your Roots  with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates after it was revealed one of Affleck's ancestors was a slave trader.

I'm not sure people necessarily found "fault" with Affleck for not wanting to air his family's dirty laundry on national TV, but his decision was controversial.

Affleck & Damon accept 1998 Best Screenplay Oscars for Good Will Hunting
Affleck and Damon jointly produce Project Greenlight so naturally they were seated side by side on the couch the other night as Damon punched a hole in the prestige of their creative partnership and let some of the air seep out.

The legitimacy of that creative partnership was inflated quite quickly for both of them when they shared the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1998 (pictured left) for Good Will Hunting.

Now don't get me wrong, I really liked Good Will Hunting. Solid film. Good watch.

Damon showed impressive range as an actor and to me it's one of Robin Williams best on screen performances; and it was a touching story too.

While the film launched Damon and Affleck's careers, I'm not sure their well-documented creative and personal 'brolationship' will ever be considered as culturally influential as Keith Richards and Mick Jagger's prolific song co-writing efforts; known informally as 'The Glimmer Twins'.

But Damon and Affleck, either alone or in partnership, certainly continue to spark controversy in ways that aren't always positive. After all, rumors have persisted for years in Hollywood that Damon and Affleck didn't actually write the script for Good Will Hunting; many insiders have insisted it was actually written or heavily doctored by screenwriting master William Goldman.

The Project Greenlight incident won't put a damper on the careers of either of these guys, but it does call into question the widely-held perspective of Damon as the "progressive liberal" raised in Cambridge, MA who publicly used his fame to come to the defense of teachers a few years back at a time when Republicans were vilifying them (and unions) as the scourge of all evil.

Project Greenlight revealed a Matt Damon who seems ensconced and somewhat culturally insulated in his position as a wealthy Hollywood A-Lister; and like many other decent Americans who are not bigots, is not all that comfortable talking about the privileges his skin color grants him in this nation.

But someone who is nonetheless as human as any of us, and for that he certainly doesn't deserve to be condemned.

Regardless I'm still a Damon fan and think the Jason Bourne franchise will be better with him in it.

This incident is not only another case of social media driving what has now become a mainstream news story, it also reveals a lot about racial identity in America - and the ways that race can impact how two people can view the same issue so differently.

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