BLACK VOICES

Matt Damon, Here's What You Should Know About Diversity In Hollywood

The actor apologized, but here's what he's still missing.

Matt Damon has some strong opinions about diversity in Hollywood. Unfortunately, judging from the most recent episode of HBO's "Project Greenlight," they seem to be pretty damn misguided. 

“Project Greenlight,” which Damon produces, is a reality show that grants one up-and-coming filmmaker the opportunity to helm a $3 million film. During Sunday's episode, in which filmmakers gathered to discuss the pre-selected script of the soon-to-be produced film, Damon rudely interrupted black filmmaker Effie Brown to mansplain the meaning of diversity to her. 

"When we're talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show," he said.

Not only did he disrespect Brown by speaking over her, he also implied that diversity behind the camera was irrelevant. Brown, shocked by his remarks, said a condensed version of what many viewers were thinking: “Wow, OK.”

People on Twitter reacted swiftly, pointing out how insensitive his comments were and even starting a #Damonsplaining hashtag. Damon has since apologized for his comments, saying: "I am sorry that they offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood." But the sentiments behind both his initial remarks and his apology, which reek of white privilege, are still worth critiquing and interrogating. 

Damon's comments come off as especially tone-deaf when you consider the particular challenges actors and filmmakers of color face when trying to break into and make it in the industry.

The 2015 Hollywood Diversity report, released by UCLA earlier this year, shows that the diversity problem often begins with predominantly male, white gatekeepers -- like those who dominate the industry's top three talent agencies and major studios. In examining the demographics of executives at film studios, the study found that in 2013 94 percent of CEOs and/or chairs and 92 percent of senior management were white. At TV networks, 96 percent of chairs and/or CEOs and 93 percent of senior management were white. The study's authors wrote: 

The talent agencies tell us they are in the business of selling to the networks and studios the kinds of packaged projects they demand. Networks and studios -- whose executive suites are almost exclusively white and male -- ironically suggest that packaged projects could be more inclusive were it not for overly narrow talent rosters.

The handful of well-respected, visible people of color who have excelled in Hollywood certainly send a powerful message through their presence alone. However, this doesn't change how limited that representation, both on-screen and behind-the-scenes, is. And this lack of off-camera representation impacts the way characters of color are treated in film and on TV.

The latter is precisely the point Brown tried to address on "Project Greenlight."  She raised concerns about the way the one black character in the pre-selected script, a prostitute named Harmony who marries the white male protagonist, might be portrayed. Brown, the only black person in a room full of white men, expressed concern over Harmony’s portrayal in the film, and encouraged the others to be cognizant of who would direct the project and how a director who is a woman and/or a person of color might be less likely to portray Harmony in a way that succumbs to stereotypes.

Instead of really taking her concerns to heart, Damon rudely shut her down.

I hate white people writing for black people; it's so offensive. Director Lee Daniels

To understand Brown's concerns about characters of color devolving into shallow tropes, look no further than the (sadly few) black actors and actresses who have received Oscars. Their Oscar-winning roles often play into racial stereotypes, like Octavia Spencer as a maid in “The Help" and Hattie McDaniels as a servant in “Gone With The Wind.” Films that reduce black people to tired tropes are often produced and directed by wealthy, white men. 

And, it's actors and filmmakers of color who are best equipped to speak on Hollywood's diversity issues -- because they have lived them. Actor David Oyelowo, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for playing Martin Luther King in 2014’s “Selma,” discussed how black people have been celebrated more for "subservient roles" at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last year. 

“Historically, and this is truly my feeling, generally speaking we as black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings, or being in the center or our own narrative driving it forward,” he said.

Oyelowo and Brown are far from the first people of color in the entertainment industry to address Hollywood's race issue. Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay, Lee Daniels, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Sanaa Lathan, Spike Lee and Gabrielle Union are just a few black stars who have discussed the industry's diversity problem -- and said it right.

Daniels, an award-winning director and co-creator of Fox hit "Empire," was very clear when he spoke about the importance of recruiting black people as both actors and as script writers and producers. 

“I don't know what gives me more pleasure: watching my story unfold or going in and watching a room full of black people talking for me and writing words for black people,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I hate white people writing for black people; it's so offensive. So we go out and look specifically for African-American voices.”

But black voices aren't the only ones in need of validation. Duvernay explained that part of the mission of her distribution film company Array is to raise the profile of all filmmakers of color.

“We definitely have a tough road as black filmmakers, but there are groups of filmmakers that have it even worse off than we do," she told HuffPost last week. "When’s the last time you saw a film by a Native American filmmaker? Latinos, Asian, women, Middle Eastern -- these are filmmakers whose voices are not being heard in the way that they should in the mainstream.”

When it comes to truly understanding Hollywood's diversity problem, the first step is listening when those who are most impacted by it are speaking. So, Matty D., the next time you think about cutting off a black woman to “Damonsplain” what diversity means, I encourage you to step back and learn from what some of these black folks have had to say on the topic.

You might learn a few things. 

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to actress Octavia Spencer as Octavia Butler. It has since been updated to reflect her correct name. Also, David Oyelowo did not win an Academy Award for playing Martin Luther King in 2014’s “Selma." He was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor.

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