Matt Damon's comments to producer Effie Brown on the topic of diversity from the Project Greenlight premiere went viral for a fairly simple reason: They had a clear-cut "good guy" and "bad guy," no matter which side of the line you fell on.
If you felt like Damon was closing out greater diversity in show business, it was easy to see why what he said was such a shock to Brown, a black woman who had advocated for hiring diverse directors to make the film at the reality show's center. And if you felt he was right to stick to his guns on the idea of merit, then the moment surely played as one where someone in a position of power stood up for the best person for the job winning out.
But the moment was complicated by all sorts of things — like how Damon had earlier said that the winner wouldn't be chosen based solely on merit but also on "leadership" (as Libby Hill points out at the Los Angeles Times), or how both Damon and Brown are hugely successful within their field. Damon's apology and response to the controversy only added fuel to the conversational fire.
Matt Damon responds to the #ProjectGreenlight diversity controversy. pic.twitter.com/0qiAgrOPww— BuzzFeedEntmnt (@BuzzFeedEnt) September 16, 2015
And the moment is even more complicated by what happens in the three episodes that follow. While this season of Project Greenlight is far from finished, what I've seen suggests a story less about how Hollywood actively quashes diversity and more about how such a thing is killed by a thousand cuts, administered by essentially everyone at every level of the system, up to and including women and people of color.
Effie Brown becomes one of the show's protagonists
If Project Greenlight in all its many iterations has had a theme, it's that moviemaking is controlled chaos, even under the best of circumstances. At any given moment, something can spiral out of control and take down a director or even a whole production, leaving everyone days or even weeks behind.
Everyone involved in the production can have the best of intentions. They can be trying to keep to some form of artistic purity. But they will inevitably have to cut corners somewhere. Collaborative art is about understanding compromise — and young directors often have the hardest time doing just that. It's the backbone of the show.
The show's structure has always worked like this. A young, seemingly impossibly naive director is thrown into the lion's den of making a film. He serves as one of the show's two protagonists.
The other is a fire-breathing producer, who has experience and knowhow and wants to make sure the director sees his vision through. To do that, the producer usually has to engage in a little tough love. (After the first few episodes, Damon and Ben Affleck usually ascend to Mount Olympus, benevolent gods tossing out crumbs, so long as it will just get the fucking movie made.)
In the show's first three seasons, the producer role was filled by veteran Hollywood figure Chris Moore, who quickly became a fan favorite. Moore was blunt, pugnacious, and not above punching back if he thought it would get the movie what it needed. He was a perfect reality TV character.
Moore, however, has since moved on to the terrific Starz series The Chair, which left a gaping void in the Project Greenlight structure. Though several different figures seem like they might fill it as of episode one, by the end of episode two it's clear that Brown, a similar Hollywood veteran, will be stepping in to make sure director Jason Mann doesn't destroy himself and/or his movie.
By placing Brown at the center, Greenlight has made the whole show about how hard it can be to navigate Hollywood's power structures when you're not white and male. That contretemps with Damon isn't some random thing the producers left in to create tension. As the season goes on, it increasingly seems like a thematic statement of purpose.
Brown's mantra may as well be "with love in my heart," backed by mention of how she's made "17 movies." Whenever tension breaks out, she drops at least one of those two phrases. The first means, "Hey. I'm on your side." And the second means, "But I do know what I'm doing." That she has to keep reminding people ends up being both a bit of a joke and the season's richest piece of subtext.
How editing defines the show's characters
Reality TV has given rise to the idea of "winner edits" and "loser edits." Broadly speaking, they're the ways reality shows are structured so viewers are gently guided to the season's conclusion. There are myriad ways to set up a winner or a loser, but diehard reality fans are used to most of them by now. (Think, for instance, of the blowhard who needs to get his comeuppance, or the quiet person who lurks at the show's edges, always there for big moments but never central to them. The former is a classic loser edit, the latter a classic winner edit.)
What's interesting about Greenlight's fourth season is that it simultaneously gives Mann and Brown winner and loser edits. Mann will spend an episode digging in on some seemingly inconsequential point of making his movie to the degree that you can all but feel the producers rolling your eyes for you, while Brown will fall over and laugh at herself, the key sign of a "character" who's being humanized.
But then things will whiplash around, sometimes in the same episode. Brown will get testy with a key collaborator and threaten the whole project, or Mann will stick to his guns and win a major argument. The show never wants you to be comfortable about which of its two protagonists is on the side of the angels here, because there's no firm answer. The movie could crash and burn, and Brown could be vindicated. Or it could be a massive success, and Mann's difficult nature could be key to why it works. History is written by the victors.
This is somewhat similar to the way the first three seasons used Moore. But over time, viewers came to know and trust him. Brown, by contrast, is an unknown commodity to Greenlight viewers. We're asked to consider her based on how the show's editors position her, yes, but also based on her race and gender, something that reveals uncomfortable things about the business she's in as well as the way we perceive the world.
In later episodes, diversity concerns fly out the window
The most telling moment of this season occurs in episode two. (Very mild spoilers follow, so don't read if you don't want to know.) Mann isn't happy with Not Another Pretty Woman's script. He's never been happy with it. That unhappiness is part of why he was chosen.
The producers agree it needs work, especially when it comes to the character of Harmony, a black prostitute, who caused Brown to raise her diversity concerns in the first place.
Mann first suggests throwing out writer Pete Jones. Jones is too tied to the three-act structure, Mann suggests, and the three-act structure is strangling Hollywood. (All of this may be true. It's likely not what the producers of a broad comedy want to hear.)
When that request is denied, he pivots to something else entirely. He has a dark comedy script he'd love to direct instead. Everybody — including Brown — reads and loves the script. They switch to that script instead, and it becomes apparent in casting that all of its major roles are for white men.
There are reasons switching scripts is a good call. Mann is more familiar with his own script. It's a better script, too, by all accounts. And if the concern is Mann's ability to handle a character who's a black prostitute, there are worse ways to get around that than by changing the script entirely. The new script has a much better chance of being a successful film. But in the process of changing to it, any questions about diversity fly out the window entirely.
The differences between how Mann and Brown are perceived are the season's whole point
This process extends to the ways Mann and Brown tackle problems throughout the first four episodes. Mann finds a thing he really wants and sticks to it, no matter what others tell him about how it might affect the finished project. We tend to reward artists who stick to their vision, after all, and Mann has more than learned that lesson. If one person says no to him, he keeps asking until he finds someone who says yes.
Brown, meanwhile, has to keep getting creative, has to keep finding ways to shut down unproductive avenues of discussion without ruffling too many feathers. Tellingly, many episodes begin with Brown trying to find ways to get Mann what he wants, and then end with Mann grousing about how he just doesn't feel supported by Brown.
To be sure, some of this is attributable to the traditional relationship between producer and director. The latter is there to make sure the film stands up to his vision. The former is there to act as a mediator between those with the money and the director. Her responsibility is primarily to the director's vision, but she also has to be able to say when something won't work in terms of budget. Mann and Brown are just reenacting a dance that has existed since film was invented.
But it's telling to see how differently Brown has to go about her job from how Moore did. If a director threw up walls, Moore bulldozed through them, and the show mostly celebrated him for that. Brown, however, has to find ways around the walls, and when she can't, and instead opts for Moore's approach, the show immediately switches to talking heads of others involved in the production wondering if she's too much of a loose cannon.
Left unstated in all of this is that Mann may be inexperienced, but he's a white guy, and there's a natural level of comfort and ease between him and most of the other participants on the project — a level of comfort and ease that Brown, a black woman, can never quite assume will be present. Mann gets to be kind of an asshole. The second Brown comes close, she runs the risk of being seen as an "angry black woman" even by her closest collaborators.
Project Greenlight season four isn't explicitly about Hollywood diversity, but in the first four episodes, it becomes the show's most potent theme. If nothing else, it's a testament to how opening any industry to diverse viewpoints isn't just about getting people in the door. It's also about making sure they're listened to once they're inside.
Update: Added Damon's response.