The fourth season of Project Greenlight, HBO's risen-from-the-dead film production reality series, debuted last night. It took only one episode for star and producer Matt Damon to say something idiotic about diversity in film.
In the season premiere, Damon and his longtime work partner Ben Affleck convene a team of producers to find a director for the new comedy Not Another Pretty Woman. The plot of this film, as noted by Flavorwire, will be your classic "girl leaves boy at the altar, boy falls in love with a black prostitute" story.
This season of Project Greenlight includes mostly white, male faces, with Dear White People producer Effie Brown representing for diverse voices. Since the role of Harmony, the black prostitute, is sensitive, Brown pushed to include diverse directors in the pool of potentials. Her hope is that they'll tell what could be a problematic story in the least racist, sexist way possible.
As noted by Twitter user @MrPooni, Damon's answer to Brown's push was not just tone-deaf, it was aggressively ignorant. "When we talk about diversity — you do it in the casting of the movie, not in the casting of the show," he said, insisting that the selection of directors must be based on "merit."
Ironically, Brown actually was arguing about merit, positing that a female director like Kristen Brancaccio might work harder to not slut-shame a sex worker character. Damon's response was to say that though "they look like one thing," Brancaccio and her partner (a Vietnamese up-and-coming filmmaker named Leo Kei Angelos) "might end up giving us something that we don't want."
Perhaps most egregiously, to make his point, Damon talks over her as she tries to respond. He's actually silencing her as he mansplains diversity in film to her. "Hoo. Wow. Okay," she says in response.
Damon is wrong for many reasons, not the least of which is that he's enforcing a bad line of logic that keeps the film industry looking the same year after year. Hollywood has a problem with putting non-white, non-male artists behind the camera. In 2014, less than 2% of the year's top 100 films were directed by women. Only five of the directors were black.
Damon cannot possibly believe that, of the 100 most popular films released last year, there were fewer women than can be counted on one hand than would have won the chance to make these films on "merit." It's not about "merit." It's about giving women — and non-white directors of both genders — the chance to earn their spots in an industry unfriendly to them. Without even realizing it, Damon exemplified the problem in one 30-second clip.
As an executive producer, Damon likely had to sign off on the segment before it was included in the episode. As a bit of television, it's a fascinating scene and a smart inclusion — but it's entirely at his own expense. Did he realize this? Or was he convinced the audience would agree with him?
It's early in the season, so presumably there's a chance the director's chair could go to a diverse candidate or team at the end. After all, Project Greenlight was designed to give up-and-coming filmmakers a chance to do what they couldn't on their own. In 2015, it feels incredibly relevant to pick a diverse winner. With Damon making the choices, however, we wouldn't bet on it.
Project Greenlight airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET.