Friday, October 23, 2015

Good Matt Damon

Matt Damon in India supporting a clean water project
Back in 1900, W.E.B Du Bois first wrote:

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia, and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea."

His prescient observation underscores why statements, attitudes or actions (real or perceived) can quickly become the object of such intense media scrutiny in the modern age.

The recent media dust-up over actor Matt Damon's remarks about diversity in Hollywood on an episode of HBO's Project Greenlight offers a perfect example of how what Du Bois called "The problem of the twentieth century" can be so intense in America, that it can inadvertently distort the perception of someone who is neither racist or insensitive, merely human like the rest of us.

I confess that like many people I was pretty quick to react to Damon's comments to African-American producer Effie Brown.

After all here was a white male A-list Hollywood actor-producer at the apex of privilege, celebrity and wealth explaining the challenges of diversity to a dark-skinned African-American female producer who has struggled to make it in an overwhelmingly white male industry?

Back on September 16th, I wrote a blog about the episode.

Damon on HBO's Project Greenlight discussing diversity
In it, I made it clear that I was not at all suggesting Damon was a racist or a bigot; in fact, I think my take on the whole affair made some good points.

I tried to put my focus/analysis on why so many people reacted so quickly to his attempt to explain the issue of diversity in the film industry to a black female producer - and how that made him appear.

But after reading Stephen Galloway's recent interview with Damon published in the September 30th issue of The Hollywood Reporter, I think the tone of what I wrote was a little unfair in that it placed Damon solely in the context of a single moment during a television show when he was doing his best to try and explain his perspective on a highly complex issue that many Americans of all races, ethnicities and religious backgrounds have a difficult time talking about.

I mean, how many "A-list" Hollywood figures publicly talk about their feelings on racial diversity in the film industry?

Damon's 9/25/15 THR cover
In the THR interview, Damon was upfront about how he came off, but he did make a point to say that some of his words were taken out of context due to edits made to the final cut of the episode that was broadcast.

As Galloway wrote, once Damon went back and saw the edited version of his comments that actually aired on Project Greenlight, his reaction was, "'Oh my God, I look like an asshole.' I thought it was a really insensitive thing to say."

As I wrote in my last blog, I freely admit that I can be hypersensitive when it comes to issues of race, but as a citizen of a nation in which I am a racial minority, I have to be on guard at all times.

As a black South African driver once told journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault about life in post-Apartheid Africa, "Being black is still a twenty-four-hour-a-day job."
Because of the impact that some of my experiences growing up as an African-American have had on my life, my natural instinct is to always "be on guard".

So my instinct was to react without taking the time to step back and take a three-dimensional look at Matt Damon when I heard about his comments on Project Greenlight.

Now I'm not naive.

Damon's decision to appear on the cover of the September 25th Hollywood Reporter and grant a revealing interview were certainly part of a carefully-choreographed PR effort to counteract some of the negative press he received over his comments to Effie Brown.
But while Galloway's THR article covers Damon's experiences filming The Martian with director Ridley Scott and his return to the Jason Bourne film franchise (which he's currently shooting), it also offers some insight into who he is as a person; and highlights the work Damon has done to provide clean, safe drinking water to people living in Third World nations including Africa and India.

Damon was a co-founder of, a non-profit organization formed in 2009 when he merged his own organization H20 Africa with Gary White's WaterPartners. now has regional offices in Kenya, Indonesia, Peru and India and channels millions of dollars a year to support clean water initiatives with the goal of providing "Safe water and the dignity of a toilet for all in our lifetime." 

According to their Website, 1 in 3 people in the world lack access to a toilet.

I think it says a lot about Damon that he lends his time, money and celebrity to such an important cause; one that saves lives and improves basic living conditions for people who exist on the margins of modern society.

In the wake of his comments on Project Greenlight a lot of people beat him up pretty bad over his comments on Twitter and other social media sites because of what he said about a touchy issue.

But actions speak much louder than words and Damon's support of's actions to provide safe drinking water in countries around the globe in place like Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda demonstrate that he's made a difference in the lives of thousands of people of color in places many Americans will never visit.

He didn't create "The problem of the twentieth century" and his involvement is helping to alleviate a problem too often dictated by "the color line" as well as the line of poverty; so maybe the guy deserves a little slack.

After all, we've all said things that didn't come out as we intended; or things we later realized were wrong or inappropriate.

Each of us has said something we regret at some point in our lives, most of us were just lucky enough not to be crucified on social media because of it - or misunderstood on a mass scale.

He may have spoken awkwardly about a sensitive issue having to do with race, but regardless, in an industry that is notorious for attracting sleaze bags, Matt Damon is still a good guy.  

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