Matt Damon, star of award-winning films like ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ and ‘The Bourne Series’, has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The fourth season premiere of HBO’s ‘Project Greenlight’—a show developed by Damon and his screenwriting collaborator Ben Affleck, which offers a chance to aspiring filmmakers to make their first movie—quickly went off the rails when Damon interrupted Effie Brown, a prominent film producer and only person of colour in the room, to ‘whitesplain’ diversity to her.
The show’s format is such that it enlists a group of producers to help select the finalists—which, incidentally, included a panel of white men and one white woman, along with Effie Brown, who has produced seventeen films, including last year’s critically-acclaimed social satire ‘Dear White People’ (ah, the irony). As the only person of colour in the group, Effie is aware that it is her responsibility to start a conversation about diversity and adequate racial representation. She talks about growing up in the 1970s, the blaxploitation era, where the majority of black people in films were mostly playing gangsters, criminals or prostitutes. She also explains how she is passionate about making films where marginalized identities are recognized. During a discussion about one of the films that has been pitched by a contestant, Brown expresses concerns that the only black person in the entire movie is a prostitute who is slapped by her white pimp. She suggests that perhaps this roomful of white people should be considerate of who they hire to direct a character like that, and suggests that they assign it to a person of colour so that the role is addressed with depth and complexity, and is prevented from turning into a racist stereotype. But, while raising these completely valid concerns, she is promptly interrupted by Matt Damon, who intervenes by saying:
“When we’re talking about diversity you do it in the casting of the film not in the casting of the show.”
Which translates to: We should only have diverse people in front of the camera, and not behind it. Matt Damon thinks that, the ones who are actually playing the roles should be of diverse identities, and not those who are creating these roles; that diversity in Hollywood amounts to simply hiring people of colour to be in the movies—not allowing them any power to make the movies themselves. Brown is evidently stunned and appalled on hearing such a statement, and all she can say as a response is “Hoo. Wow, okay”, with a disparaging grimace.
Matt Damon’s utter ignorance is actually a reflection of Hollywood’s general attitude to race and other marginalized identities. What both Damon and the majority of the white-dominated production houses in the industry fail to grasp is that, hiring diverse filmmakers results in diverse cinema, with more inclusive representation. Earlier this year, a Washington Post article talked about the difficulties filmmakers of colour face in getting big production houses to back their projects. The makers of the recent critical hit ‘Selma’—a film based on Martin Luther King Jr’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama—had been trying to get production houses to fund their film since 2007, until Oprah Winfrey stepped in eventually and put her support behind it. Lee Daniels and the makers of ‘The Butler’, yet another film with a majority-black cast and crew, also faced a lot of funding hurdles from production companies before they could get the film made.
Nearly 36% of the American population is made up of people of colour, while only 10% of the films in the last few years have had people of colour as leads in any major Hollywood motion picture. Movies with 31 percent to 40 percent minority casts — the share closest to how America looks — accounted for just 2 percent of the top films from 2011 examined for the 2014 report by the UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunch Center for African American Studies. People of color wrote only 7.6 percent of the 172 movies examined. Women of colour are even more markedly absent in mainstream cinema, both in front and behind the camera. Most racial representation comes in the form of stereotypes: the sassy African American, the nerdy Asian American, the lustful, ‘exotic’ Latin American.
It is perhaps because of this mainstream rejection of adequate racial representation, these diverse filmmakers are moving to television. In the last year itself, some of the most popular, highest rated and critically acclaimed television shows have had diverse creators and casts: ‘Empire’, ‘Black-ish'(all-black), ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ (majority-Asian), ‘Jane The Virgin’ (majority-hispanic), ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, ‘Scandal’ (majority-black), ‘Orange Is The New Black’ (diverse) and so on. These shows often deal with questions of race, gender and sexuality and succeed in providing a mouthpiece for voices that are often ignored in film. And yet, there is still a long way to go, as many networks are still heavily white-preferential in their casting and production choices.
Hollywood’s ignorance when it comes to representation and its dominance by cis white men needs to be repeatedly challenged. Representation, especially in mainstream media, is extremely important, because it is what helps one connect with a character or a work of art. Media is an extremely powerful and influential tool, and its scope needs to be expanded to give voice to diverse identities and experiences. People of colour (especially those who are not straight, male or cis) need heroes who they can call their own, and not just in front of the camera, but also behind it.