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Hollywood Has A Serious Problem of Racial Ignorance, And Matt Damon Just Proved It

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By Rohini Banerjee for Cake:

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.

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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.

This article was originally published here. To read more on gender, sex, and sexuality, head to Cake.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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