If you’ve had your ear pressed to the interwebs, you probably are aware by now that Matt Damon was accused of “mansplaining” the lack of diversity in Hollywood to Effie Brown. Ms. Brown, in case you don’t know, is an African-American movie producer who co-produced the film “Dear White People.” The film did great guns at Sundance and impressed viewers around the world. During the season premiere of Project Greenlight—HBO’s filmmaking competition reality show—Damon and Brown’s discussion on diversity in filmmaking led to a classic internet sh*tstorm. We’re reminded yet again that once you awaken the internet beast, the internet can’t just take exception in a calm and civil way. There must be blood, shame and groveling apologies before any transgressor can get back into its good graces. So what actually happened here?
The film in question involves an African-American character who is a prostitute and is slapped by her Caucasian pimp. Pretty gross, on a “basic human dignity” level. Brown is concerned that the choice of director will impact the handling of this character, named Harmony. She goes on to stress the importance of diversity in filmmaking. That’s when Damon pipes up that this is something he’s considered and discussed with the other producers. He feels strongly that he should choose the most appropriate director regardless of race, gender, etc. While he is having these strong feelings, Brown tries to explain that “appropriate” should probably include diversity of race and gender.
Certainly, diversity is an important issue everywhere—especially in Hollywood. It’s better for everyone, but especially those in marginalized groups, that all types of people can see themselves represented accurately onscreen. There should absolutely be representations of strong women, people of color, varied sexual orientations and body types, trans folks, people with disabilities and mental illnesses—everyone. We need and deserve a wide range of characters onscreen. And the best way to ensure that these portrayals are respectful and accurate is with an equally diverse group of people behind the scenes—directing, producing, lighting and editing. And yes, Hollywood talks a good game but is often lacking in diversity. This is something that’s been going on since long before Matt Damon and Ben Affleck decided to make a reality show about filmmaking.
Cutting off another person when they’re trying to speak is rude. It’s also a very natural thing to do when you’re excited to make a point, or when you think you know where the other person is headed in the conversation. In this case, more listening was probably in order. Those who watch Project Greenlight already know that this is something Damon does fairly often—to all sorts of people, even his co-Greenlighter, Ben Affleck. The comment in question, the one every news site posts and reposts:
Is that a tone-deaf comment, as many have asserted? Probably. But is it “mansplaining?” Probably not. It’s a difference of opinion, and the rich white guy who’s been involved in dozens of film productions and 3 previous seasons of Project Greenlight felt confident in what he was saying. Effie Brown’s point—that diversity is necessary and valuable on both sides of the lens—also comes from her passion and her experience on several films. While many saw nothing inherently racist or sexist in the exchange, Damon apologized within a few days of the episode airing, explaining that he intended to do a better job of increasing his awareness of diversity issues.
In true interweb style, that apology was not remotely enough. Damon was lambasted with comments accusing him of claiming he was the one who started a conversation on diversity (he didn’t), tweets telling him that “his awareness means nothing,” and admonishments that he “do something about [diversity].” One might think that a contest encouraging new talent to get into the film business would be seen as “doing something,” but not in the thoroughly trigger-happy world of the internet. Although the comment itself certainly implies that Damon may have something to learn, let’s keep in mind that on the scale of unforgivable politically incorrect transgressions, this probably ranks pretty low.