How the Project Greenlight Diversity Debacle (Probably) Made It To Air

I have come here to confess: when I first heard about Matt Damon schooling Effie Brown on the finer points of diversity on Project Greenlight, the first thing that popped into my head was, “Well, kudos to Damon, he probably could have had them edit out that moment if he wanted.”

See, of the Affleck/Damon entity, I’ve always preferred Matt Damon.  Damon, for one, did not, upon being asked to extinguish a cigarette by a person in whose home they were shooting for Good Will Hunting, look the homeowner in the eye as he stubbed the cigarette out in her potted plant.  (Guess who did?)  Additionally, while Damon did participate in creating that execrable piece of Oscar-baity bullshit, he has since stepped back and allowed his pal Ben to take the lead in creating more unduly lauded movies, choosing instead to build an impressive acting career.

You might even say that I have a teensy, weensy lesbian crush on Matt Damon.  So I weally, weally wanted to believe that Damon let the offending incident air because he believed it might generate a conversation about the racism that resides in even the most well-meaning of white people.  I know.  Pathetic.  Sigh.

Here’s how I think it more likely went down:

Firstly, while PG is a reality show and therefore somewhat untrustworthy, I am inclined to believe that the incident unfolded in real life much as it did in the episode. Trust me: you don’t script (or soft script) Matt Damon to condescend to the producer of Dear White People on the issue of race. So the moment somewhat documentary.

That being said, I’m sure that most people in the room were unaware that anything explosive had happened. People performing “conversation” for camera often get caught up in what the next thing is they should say, and don’t really listen to each other most of the time. Damon, in particular, seems oblivious to having caused offense. He has the relaxed demeanor of a person confident in the correctness of his beliefs. It’s possible that even the producers shooting the scene didn’t know what they’d got. Following story in the field can sometimes be like tracking hummingbird mating rituals while juggling knives on a solowheel. Effie Brown, we can assume, was less oblivious.   

Whatever the case, no one is oblivious in post.  Editors and post producers have two goals: find the drama and bring it.  And on a show as vanilla as Project Greenlight, any conflict is going to be milked.  So, if I’m working on that show, that Effie moment would go straight in.  Sure, the guy’s a star, but the moment happened and it is great conflict. Post producers don’t tend to censor themselves around celebrities; those are the decisions we leave to executives. And those executives likely aren’t going to eliminate good content unless they have to.

So, in the end, the decision probably lay with Damon and his team.  I suspect they could have insisted the content be removed, if they wanted.  And just to play devil’s advocate, maybe it never even occurred to them to remove it.  But I find it hard to believe anyone would be cool with being portrayed (even slightly) as a racist, if they had the option of removing the content.  And yet they didn’t.  Why? 

Re-enter Ben Affleck, stage right, smoking a cigarette.  You have to figure that Affleck’s recent Finding Your Roots saga informed Damon’s team’s discussions. If you recall, that scandal pre-dated Nannygate but was equally, if not more, damaging to Affleck’s image. It was the kind of shit the right wing lives for:  an espouser of liberal politics pressuring PBS to edit (censor) his slave owning ancestor out of a documentary program.  (And let’s not forget, they do kind of pretend that Greenlight is documentary).

Damon and his team had to know that if it came out that he’d had material of this nature suppressed it would be devastating.  It would only take one person in the vast chain of people involved in producing the show to leak it, and Damon would wind up looking as devious as his ol’ buddy Ben.

The best that Damon (and/or his people) could do, and did, is request that he be allowed to express his viewpoint in interview (which he did – unfortunately compounding the initial insult).  Team Damon might also have applied pressure to get the moment watered down (although it seems to play pretty straight to this producer’s eyes). Whatever the case, they clearly realized there was no stuffing that particular genie back in the bottle.

And that, I suspect, is how the moment made it to television. And, look, I’m grateful it did. We need to be reminded that while racism looks like this, sometimes it looks like this.   
White people (like me) benefit from a system that is weighted in our favor.  We should not be surprised, then, when we reveal ourselves to be, well, ill-schooled in just how weighted that system is.  But it would probably behoove us to get an education.  If this incident gets even a few people (including Damon) to start examining their privilege, I would be willing to say Project Greenlight has at least one redeeming quality.    

OT (maybe?) Does it make me a bad person that I’m still totally salivating for the upcoming installment of The Bourne Identity?


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