Matt Damon isn't having the best PR day.
Last night on HBO’s "Project Greenlight," a reality show that follows first-time filmmakers in creating a $3 million movie and for which Damon is an executive producer, the actor interrupted a fellow judge to downplay the importance of diversity behind the camera in favor of talent.
In the fourth season premiere of the show, a panel of judges, including Damon and his best pal Ben Affleck, are choosing the best director out of 13 finalists to work on a pre-selected screenplay called "Not Another Pretty Woman." It’s a comedy about a man who gets left at the altar and ends up marrying a prostitute named Harmony. In one scene, the prostitute, who is black, is slapped by her pimp, a white man.
As the only black judge on the panel, producer Effie Brown brings up the delicacy of this dynamic. She’s worried about the only black character in the story being turned into a trope, she says. It would be too easy to fall into the trap stereotypes and that’s why, she suggests, the director should be someone who can treat the character of Harmony with sensibility and consideration. She’s rooting for a directing duo consisting of a woman and a Vietnamese man.
“I just want to urge people to think about, whoever this director is, the way they’re going to treat the character of Harmony, her being a prostitute, the only black person who gets beat by her white pimp,” says Brown, who has produced 17 feature films including "Dear White People," to the room.
And then Damon jumps in to assert that diversity is not an issue at this point in the production.
"When we're talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show," he says. Here, he's suggesting that hiring of people of color for the crew of a movie doesn’t matter if the movie just has minority actors, and that merit is the most important criterion for choosing a director.
At this point Brown is incredulous. “Wow, ok,” she replies.
The internet has reciprocated her disbelief, using the hashtag #Damonsplaining on Twitter. Some were quick to point out that diversity in the casting of actors is already lacking in Hollywood. Based on a USC Annenberg report that surveyed the top 100 films of 2014, only 27 percent of all characters are minorities (according to Census data, about 37 percent of the American population are non-white).
Even more harrowing is the nearly nonexistent presence of minority directors in Hollywood. Between 2007 and 2014, out of 779 directors, only 45 were black or Asian – that’s 8 percent. In 2014, only one out of 107 directors of top films is a black woman.
Damon could have left this tense encounter out of the episode, but for whatever reason did not.
As Todd VanDerWerff writes on Vox:
The system gravitates toward white men, and it has always gravitated toward white men, often from very, very similar socioeconomic backgrounds. This isn't to say that those men aren't talented. Most of them (like Damon himself) are wildly gifted! But they are not the only talented people in the universe. … Hollywood is rigged toward white men. Even in an age of supposed diversity, it still is (as Nell Scovell beautifully points out at the New York Times). Increasing diversity, then, is about those white men in power realizing when they have the chance to open doors for those who aren't in power who may not look or think like them.