Producer Effie Brown had already been turned into a .gif by the first episode of HBO’s “Project Greenlight,” where she and Matt Damon had an exchange over the meaning of diversity that launched a #Mattsplaining hashtag. (He interrupted her, which set social media afire.)
That was just Day 1.
I wasn’t surprised. I’ve been working with Effie on a project for more than a year, and I was well acquainted with her catch-phrase “Duly Noted” and her candor on all matters, including race and diversity. And Effie isn’t in “Project Greenlight” for the money (as she breaks down in this Indiewire interview).
As always, Effie (who produced Dear White People) wants to make a difference. Effie hired a diverse crew including people of color and women–which particularly jumps out while watching the show because the movie itself, The Leisure Class, is so white. (The original script for the competition featured a black woman prostitute, and Effie raised immediate questions about how her character would be treated. That’s what led to the Damon exchange. For unrelated reasons, the director, Jason Mann, lobbied to use his own story instead.)
In the latest episode Sunday (titled “Hot Ghetto Mess” for reasons as yet unclear, but that’s a story for The Washington Post), Effie halted a scene when she realized a black extra had been asked to bring in bags dressed as a chauffeur. “The only black person in this movie is not going to be a chauffeur,” she explained to the assistant director (who was black himself). The extra playing the chauffeur was switched.
Effie had been very clear that black extras were not to be cast as “the help.” She explained further in an on-air interview: “A butler. A chauffeur. These are tropes that we have seen time and time again, and I think those images are done. It’s time for us to tell a different narrative.”
When I tweeted my support for Effie, a troll immediately jumped on her for getting an actor “fired” for the sake of diversity–which isn’t what happened. (The extra wasn’t fired.) What did happen is that Effie scored a point against ongoing stereotypes in cinema–stereotypes that are so long-standing and culturally pervasive that many people in the industry won’t even see them.
The reality is, every Hollywood production needs an equivalent of Effie Brown at the table–ideally, more than one person with an unflinching grasp of how film and television can be so tone deaf to inclusivity. People from disenfranchised communities have a particularly hard time breaking into Hollywood, which is built on relationships and access. Many film and television internships don’t pay, for example, so interns have to be able to afford to invest that time just get in on the ground floor. That’s just the start of the closed doors. And producers who say they “can’t find” crew members, writers or actors of color don’t have Effie Brown’s contacts or, more importantly, her sense of mission.
And no, it isn’t comfortable. Sometimes even when women or people of color are represented behind the camera, or in the writer’s room, they are often alone–so they might not have the guts, or weight, to speak up or have impact on questions of representation. Effie does. (Here’s NPR’s story “On Wyatt Cenac, ‘Key & Peele,’ and Being the Only One in the Room.”)
If “Fear the Walking Dead” had had an Effie Brown at the table, there’s no way the first two episodes would have been slammed for their treatment of black men, or included the portrayal of (yet another) drug dealer by a black actor. (That showrunner blamed casting and talked about giving talented actors a break, but talented black actors can also get breaks in parts where they don’t die so soon, and aren’t walking stereotypes.) I ranted about those episodes in this post HERE.
The list goes on. From the Native American actors who walked off of the set of an Adam Sandler movie to the ire Johnny Depp created by casting himself as Tonto to a federal investigation into sexism in Hollywood, today’s social media gives viewers a much wider platform to complain about how they are represented (or ignored) in TV and film. Embarrassment over diversity issues will continue to plague projects that don’t grasp the need to reflect diversity from within.
And speaking up isn’t easy. Years ago, I was I taping an awards show where I was a presenter, and I saw an upcoming line in the script comparing ethnic groups that struck me as borderline offensive. The line was supposed to be read by a black actress who was a minor (which only made it more inappropriate to me). I had no authority, but somehow I heard myself telling a woman in the control booth to cut the line (“I wondered about that myself,” she said), and she conferenced with the producer who had written it (who was himself black). The line was cut.
Later, I wondered what had possessed me. That wasn’t my show! Would the producer hate me forever? (The answer was NO, we’re cool.) But in the heat of the moment, I hadn’t thought about that. All I’d thought about was the integrity of the program.
Granted, that was a different situation–I was just passing through that taping, so it didn’t represent my livelihood. I wasn’t worried that I might get fired, or that my reputation might be tainted and I would never work again.
I wasn’t arguing my point on camera with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
But Effie Brown does, and can. Which makes her worth her weight in gold.
Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. Click HERE to join her mailing list.