9:45 am EDT, September 15, 2015

The problem of diversity in Hollywood is bigger than Matt Damon’s ignorant comments (opinion)

Matt Damon used the return of Project Greenlight to demonstrate exactly why we need diversity in Hollywood; he just didn’t realize it.

Update: Matt Damon has apologized for his remarks

On the Project Greenlight premiere, producer Effie Brown (producer of Dear White People and numerous other films), drew attention to the fact that the only black character in the screenplay to be directed by one of the Project Greenlight hopefuls was a prostitute. Brown hoped the panel would take into account how the directors might treat this character, indicating that a non-male and non-white director would be most appropriate. Damon quickly interrupted her to explain why that wasn’t, in fact, an issue.

“When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show,” Damon said, seemingly displaying a fairly blatant belief that diversity is only about visibility on camera, and not about providing opportunities behind it. You can watch the full clip below:

Project Greenlight is a documentary series from executive producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The show returned this week for a fourth season, after a decade off our screens. The aim of the show is to provide opportunities for up-and-coming directors who might otherwise find it difficult to break into Hollywood.

Before the premiere (and the controversy), Damon told ET why the series was so important to him:

“For us, in particular, when we came on the scene with Good Will Hunting all those years ago, we kind of did it in a non-traditional way, and so a lot of people asked us, ‘How the hell did that happen?’ So it always felt like there was some other way to launch some careers and we always felt it was kind of incumbent on us to do that.”

It’s an admirable goal, which is why it was so disheartening to hear Damon totally dismiss the benefit of his own privilege in achieving his success. Of course Good Will Hunting was a remarkable debut script, but are we so sure that Damon and Affleck would have had such success if they were not both white males?

Yes, Damon is right to note that it is difficult to break into any large industry. Yet report after report has shown that Hollywood, as with the rest of society, is set up to benefit those who are white, and those who are male. Damon benefits from this system, and his comments on Project Greenlight indicate that doesn’t seem inclined to make any changes to it.

matt damon effie brown

Diversity in Hollywood: It is bigger than Matt Damon and ‘Project Greenlight’

The question is not whether or not Damon truly believes that diversity is only about screen time. However, it is worth noting that as an executive producer on Project Greenlight, Damon could have cut the segment from the premiere had he decided he didn’t want it to air, so make of that what you will. I am less interesting in vilifying Damon, deserving though everyone’s favorite Bourne star (sorry Jeremy Renner) is after such remarks. Instead, let’s use this opportunity to have the conversation about diversity offscreen that we should have been having anyway.

Too often the conversation about diversity is entirely focused on those who appear in films or on television. In our eagerness to celebrate or condemn these casting choices, we too often forget (this writer included) about all of those working behind the camera. Because they don’t appear in trailers, or do cute segments with Jimmy Fallon, they don’t hold our attention. The cameras they wield somehow render them invisible, and we let them stay that way.

Diversity in Hollywood: The Academy Awards

As Project Greenlight is the search for the next big director, let’s take a look at the kinds of directors we are currently seeing in Hollywood, beginning with the pinnacle of achievement: The Academy Awards. As Brown was explicitly discussing diversity of gender and race, I will keep that as the focus, but these findings of course extend to all marginalized groups, including those of different ages, gender identities, sexualities, physical and mental abilities, and more.

The big winners at the Oscars are white male directors. Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman to have be named Best Director, having received the award in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. No female directors have even received a nomination for the award since her win. Ang Lee similarly retains the (regrettable) distinction of being the only Asian director to have taken home the award, although he has done so twice, first in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, and again in 2012 for Life of Pi.

Alfonso Cuarón was the first Latin American to win Best Director. He won in 2013 for Gravity, and was followed in 2014 by Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman. No black director has won the Academy Award, with only three black nominees in the history of the Oscars: John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, 1991), Lee Daniels (Precious, 2009) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, 2013).

hollywood directors diversity

Similar results can be observed in the Golden Globes, and the Baftas. It is encouraging that from Lee’s win in 2005, we have seen a huge increase in recognition for directors from marginalized groups. However, this increase is partly only remarkable because it follows a period of zero recognition. It’s also worth noting that of a field of five nominees, we are lucky to get one who isn’t a white male — even if that one has gone on to be the winner in recent years. But awards are only one measure of success; what about the moneymakers?

Diversity in Hollywood: The box-office successes

The ten top-grossing films in the United Stated in 2014 were, in order, American Sniper (dir. Clint Eastwood), The Hunger Hames: Mockingjay – Part 1 (dir. Francis Lawrence), Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn), Captain America: The Winter Solider (dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo), The LEGO Movie (dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller), The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (dir. Peter Jackson), Transformers: Age of Extinction (dir. Michael Bay), Maleficent (dir. Robert Stromberg), X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir. Bryan Singer), and Big Hero 6 (dir. Don Hall and Chris Williams).

That’s ten films directed by 13 male directors, 12 of whom (as far as I can tell) can be considered white (The LEGO Movie director Phil Lord is the son of a Cuban refugee). No other people of color, and no women.

I would like to hope that such a dire picture was not representative of all of Hollywood, however when considering the bigger picture for diversity of directors, it unfortunately doesn’t look any better.

On page 2: How Matt Damon’s ‘Project Greenlight’ comments are representative of a much bigger problem in Hollywood

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