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Matt Damon inadvertently demonstrates why Hollywood isn't more diverse

Matt Damon (right) is a producer of Project Greenlight, along with Ben Affleck.
Matt Damon (right) is a producer of Project Greenlight, along with Ben Affleck.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

HBO has revived the "making a movie" reality series Project Greenlight for a fourth season, just over 10 years after the show's third season went off the air.

In and of itself, this is welcome news. The original three seasons remain among the best reality TV of all time, and the film industry has changed enough that the show will be able to consider those changes.

But the fourth season premiere also underlines something interesting about diversity in Hollywood. While most people you talk to in show business agree it's a problem, they also all seem to think it's somebody else's problem. And we found this out from no less a luminary than Matt Damon.

A major conflict in the premiere centers on diversity

In the season premiere, the various producers of Not Another Pretty Woman, the broad comedy script that will be turned into a film over the course of the series, argue about which director they want to see tackle the film. Everyone writes down a list of their top four, and while there's broad consensus from most in the room, producer Effie Brown (a black woman) wants to stick up for a directorial team consisting of a woman and a Vietnamese man.

Brown is worried, she says, about the one black character in the script the filmmaker will be working with, who is a prostitute who is beaten by her pimp. There's a way to make that work without hitting stereotypes, but Brown is worried it will take a deft touch.

Damon, one of the show's executive producers (along with his friend Ben Affleck), shuts Brown down almost immediately. First, he rightly points out that the team Brown is backing was the most complimentary of the script as written. But then he goes one step further. Diversity, he says, isn't their problem at the moment. It's a problem for some other point in the process.

"You do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show," Damon says.

Later, he clarifies in a talking head segment that he thinks diversity is important and that "filmmaking should throw a broader net." But he thinks that choosing a director based entirely on diversity instead of "merit" would break the show.

"It seems like you would undermine what the competition is supposed to be about, which is about giving somebody this job based entirely on merit," he says in the interview.

(It's worth noting here that I've seen four episodes, and without spoiling what's to come, there's no real attempt at coming up with diverse actors in the leading roles of the film as it's shot, either.)

Diversity too often becomes somebody else's problem

This is often the attitude Hollywood has about diversity: Sure, it's a problem, but does it have to be my problem? The system gravitates toward white men, and it has always gravitated toward white men, often from very, very similar socioeconomic backgrounds. This isn't to say that those men aren't talented. Most of them (like Damon himself) are wildly gifted! But they are not the only talented people in the universe.

On the surface, Damon's concerns make sense. Project Greenlight is, after all, a merit-based competition, on some level. But it's not as if the director chosen is so obviously better than everybody else in the top 10 that it's an easy decision.

The producers hem and haw over which person to choose, and it ultimately seems like they land on their final choice (a white guy named Jason Mann) because he'll make for better television. Once he's selected, he immediately demands the film's writer be replaced, so we know the combative sort he'll be, and reality TV thrives on combativeness.

Mann, from what little we see of his short films, seems like a talented guy with a darkly twisted sense of humor. He'll have every opportunity to make a great film, and the producers can hope he'll make for great TV along the way.

But Brown's point still stands. Mann is not the guy who's going to intuitively understand the point of view of a black prostitute — or even necessarily force himself to try. And thus, it will be ever more on the producers to make sure that happens. And in a situation like that, where all things are equal or nearly equal, making the diverse choice makes sense. Passing the buck to the casting department doesn't.

Hollywood is rigged toward white men. Even in an age of supposed diversity, it still is (as Nell Scovell beautifully points out at the New York Times). Increasing diversity, then, is about those white men in power realizing when they have the chance to open doors for those who aren't in power who may not look or think like them.

It's one thing to pay lip service. Everybody does it. It's quite another to actually do something about it.

Project Greenlight airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on HBO. Catch up with previous episodes at HBO Go.