Project Greenlight’s Effie Brown addresses male privilege

Lights, camera, action · Actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are two producers of the HBO series Project Greenlight. Both served on a panel that selected contestant Jason Mann from a talent search to direct a movie. Filmmaker Effie Brown also served on the panel. - Photo courtesy of HBO

Lights, camera, action · Actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are two producers of the HBO series Project Greenlight. Both served on a panel that selected contestant Jason Mann from a talent search to direct a movie. Filmmaker Effie Brown also served on the panel. – Photo courtesy of HBO

A couple weeks ago, news outlets circulated a video depicting a disagreement between Matt Damon and film producer Effie Brown on the HBO reality series Project Greenlight. This reality show centers on a group of professionals, including Damon and partner Ben Affleck, awarding an aspiring director $3 million in order to make his or her first feature film. In the video, Damon said that diversity quotas should only be taken into consideration when casting the actual movie, not when deciding who should win the $3 million. In response to Damon’s statement, Brown — a black woman with prominent film credits including last year’s indie darling Dear White People — guffaws loudly and responds, “Wow. OK.”

I hadn’t watched a single episode of Project Greenlight at that point — the only footage I’d ever seen of it was the video aforementioned. When the clip went viral and Damon was asked to apologize for his statement, I was on Damon’s side. I felt the people were too quick to point their fingers, and I truly believed that he was right in saying that the director chosen should be based on merit and merit only. I also felt that Brown was looking to pick a fight with Damon — her response seemed too inflamed and accusatory. It didn’t sound like she was listening — just merely reacting for the benefit of seeming like she was on her equality high horse in a sea of exactly the same type of white, upper-middle class men who are precisely the reason why Hollywood has such a diversity problem in the first place. In essence, I felt she was occupying a role she felt pushed into inhabiting, simply because no one else in the room would’ve done it. And that didn’t seem good enough to me.

This past week, SCA had a screening of The Leisure Class — the actual movie made in the show — followed by a Q&A with the winning director Jason Mann and producer Mark Joubert. The movie itself wasn’t without its problems. In fact, it was very flawed. But what I found most fascinating was the obvious tension during the Q&A. In a room with only a couple dozen people and the actual production of the series months behind them, Mann and Joubert didn’t seem to shake the bad blood accumulated during production. This led me to binge watch Project Greenlight in its entirety the day after Halloween, ultimately leading up to the actual finale of the show later that night. I had to find out what happened to cause such obvious discomfort in one of the most innocent of spaces, a screening room filled with film students in an institution of learning.

Throughout the show, a clear antagonistic relationship is created between Mann and Brown. The two are constantly butting heads in terms of production choices and money, culminating in Brown abandoning the reshoots of the project.

But beyond that, Brown is often portrayed as the bad guy throughout the series — she cracks the whip on time and budget and demands that more diversity be employed throughout the casting of the show. She does, in fact, do an admirable job of casting diverse employees below the line of production — the assistant director, location manager, film editor and production designer are all people of color, including a plethora of women behind the scenes who also are working on the project. However, Brown is also targeted as the odd woman out throughout the series. Whereas the other men throughout the show, such as Joubert, are almost depicted as silent, passive forces during production, Brown is loud and outspoken. When director Pete Farrelly, known for movies such as Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, who was brought on to mentor Jason Mann, quits the project, it’s because he doesn’t like how Brown told him it wasn’t his place to pitch digital shooting to Mann. Farrelly cites wanting to avoid “drama” with Brown for leaving, but it really just seems like Farrelly didn’t like being put in his place by a woman.

Throughout the series, the camera crew also takes considerable time documenting Brown’s blunders. At one point, Brown is running around her office and subsequently trips and falls. Later, the camera includes several moments where Brown says she needs to eat her feelings away during the stressful production. The crew even manages to catch Brown gorging alone at crafts services. In a way, she’s “caught in the act,” and when she sees the camera filming her, she’s visibly upset. In a documentary series with hundreds of hours of footage and only a couple hours that can actually make the final cut, I wonder why the editors at HBO felt they needed to personally attack her. On the other hand, the process of casting the women in the film was left completely on the editing room floor. It might have been that the executives were so stretched for space and character in a sea full of bland men with nothing to offer the story that Brown was the only person to target. Or they needed to portray some sort of antagonist throughout the series, and therefore made the poor choice of choosing the only black woman in a position of high power in the show.

Granted, the argument could also be made that Brown was not without a bad side. Part of Brown’s goal throughout the series is to increase the diversity in a production that seemed like it didn’t allow for it. The Leisure Class in its essence is a movie about the 1 percent and how — despite their affluence, connections and privilege — they are just as complicated and messed up as any other family, if not more so. So in a story that occupies such a defined world, to add in diverse characters and background players would be to change the rules of the very society the film is trying so hard to comment on.

However, this argument doesn’t sit well with me, because as Brown points out during one part of the show, we’ve all seen the trope of the chauffeur or butler being played by a person of color too many times. Thus, Brown hopes to provide “a different narrative” in Hollywood going forward, which she absolutely should. The rules have been defined for decades by the very white men making most of the decisions throughout the show. They, in my opinion, did a very poor job with choosing the winning director in Mann, who is not only disrespectful, but ultimately makes a really flawed movie.

The dilemma with Brown also brings to mind a quote from The Devil Wears Prada, when Anne Hathaway’s character defends her strict boss played by Meryl Streep by saying: “If she were a man, the only thing people would talk about is how good she is at her job.” For some reason, I kind of have the feeling that in Brown’s case, the same would be true.

Minnie Schedeen is a junior majoring in cinematic arts and critical studies. Her column, “Film Fatale,” runs every Tuesday.