Producer & ‘Project Greenlight’ Star Effie Brown On The Consequence Of Speaking Up In Hollywood

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In case you missed it, the newly revamped Ben Affleck and Matt Damon series on HBO ‘Project Greenlight’ returned to the small screen with an explosive first episode that firmly put the issue of diversity (and Hollywood’s systemic reluctance to embrace it) front and center.

Let’s get one thing straight about this show: it is a reality show, meaning it thrives on drama for ratings, just like any other reality show. Usually, the winner of the series is of little consequence to the TV network who is banking on their show being a ratings winner in order for it to be renewed again and again.

In this instance, ‘Project Greenlight’ is a little different as it presents a kind-of weird symbiotic relationship with a few different aspects of the film and TV industry. In the first episode, we see the entire room of mostly white, straight, male producers, directors and star (Matt and Ben) discussing their final choices of which directors should get the greenlight to make their film.

The script they chose was initially a twist on the hooker with a heart of gold trope, where the prostitute was a black woman. Effie Brown, who was the producer of ‘Dear White People’, chimed in to voice her concerns that a mostly-white and mostly-male room is fine with allowing a stereotypical characterization of a minority, saying that the team needs to be aware of the issue of diversity.

Almost immediately Matt Damon jumped in, cut her off and said adamantly that the diversity need not be as important as the story and the merit of a character, and that you could essentially damage these aspects if you focus on that. He also thinks diversity doesn’t need to happen behind the scenes, only in the casting of a film, per say, which couldn’t be further from the truth. How can a room of straight white men be expected to write authentic raw stories about women, minorities, the LGBTQ community and anyone but themselves? This is where we get the notion of the “male gaze” when talking about how the majority of Hollywood characters and indeed power structures are created through this lens.

As you watch the rest of the series on HBO, you start to get a sense of how Effie is being portrayed, based on that fiery initial exchange. It’s as if her bold stance on an issue she believes is important in filmmaking became the impetus of a reality TV story line where she was the “bad guy” for speaking out. To his credit, Matt Damon did apologize and explain his words a little, but we kinda got the sense that diversity wasn’t a big deal to him, as much as, say, having a hit TV show.

In an interview with Indiewire, Effie Brown spoke about her experience on the show and what she learned from being and experienced and accomplished producer, to essentially being reality TV fodder and how voicing her opinions, opinions which mirror the thoughts of countless women and minorities in the industry as well as in the audience, made her a few high powered enemies.

Effie is a former military kid who has a pretty badass reputation as a producer. She has worked on a number of HBO films already, as well as the aforementioned ‘Dear White People’ and 17 independent features. She boasts an impeccable record of never going over budget, has a no-nonsense straight-talking attitude which is what every great film producer should have. They are the people who pull the strings, stay on top of the budget and make sure everyone is happy. She says she was initially brought on to the show not knowing that she would eventually become the lead story line with the winning director Jason.

Throughout the series she clashes with Jason as she helps him produce his first major film for HBO, arguing that he cannot shoot on film as he would like because it would put them way over budget and this is the digital age. Indiewire’s Anne Thompson asked her why she chose to argue with Matt Damon on camera and share her opinion. Her answer is brilliant.

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“I had no choice really. I’ve been black and a woman all my life. I have worked in this business for 20 years. I’m 43. It was one of those things. Literally in that moment, was I going to risk public humiliation, bringing up this opinion, or deal with shame and excuses: ‘You let that go by?’ That’s a big responsibility. I was more afraid of my mother: ‘That’s how we raised you and sacrificed, that’s it? When the time was for you to stand and be counted?’ That’s all that went thorough my head: damned if I was going to do that,” she said.

What’s interesting is that Jason, the winning director/contestant, wasn’t exactly a church mouse either. The script he was to direct was written by a former ‘Project Greenlight’ director and from the minute he was announced as the winner, he told Matt Damon and Ben Affleck he wanted to hire a different writer. And his fight with Effie, his producer, about wanting to use film over digital, showed him eventually circumventing her decision and going straight to Damon, Affleck and HBO to ask whether he can use film.

It’s not wrong to stand up for your opinions and your creative vision, as both Effie and Jason are doing, but we are yet to see how Jason’s decisions will come back to bite him.

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Effie is the first person to admit her flaws, but knows she will never compromise on doing a good job at the end of the day. While she does not strike us as the type of person to use any race or gender card, her perspective on why it is important to point out the issue of diversity is less tokenism and more in the name of progressive and inclusive filmmaking.

“I did a good job. I’m not a man. That’s the thing. I’ve never been anything other than a black woman. I learned what I learned: to reach your goal, you can take several paths. I’m used to taking the direct straight path. If I felt I was not looked at through the male gaze as a female, you bet it would be different. I have to think, the people I’m working with, they don’t think they are misogynistic,” she explains.

Most of all, she is glad that diversity in filmmaking has been a topic of conversation, and it has opened up more opportunities for dialog amongst the industry, as well as audiences. As much as she could control, she was able to make sure her decisions on set reflected the values she cares about so much. She may not be best friends with Matt Damon or Peter Farrelly, but in honor of what her mother taught her, she was able to be a great example of a woman speaking up for something important, despite the obvious backlash.

“I’m happy with the experience. I’m super grateful that at the end of the day, no matter what, the show showed a beautiful, qualified, inclusive crew making a great movie. On the TV, you see people reflecting African-Americans making a movie, so that many people can join the experience. That was important to me, one of the reasons I did it. We accomplished that,” she said.

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In a recent appearance on a panel at the Produced By: New York event, Effie Brown mentioned how her appearance on the show enabled audiences to talk about diversity and her fight with Matt Damon on social media in a way that TV studios and industry execs cannot ignore. She says by Matt and the other judges in the room essentially shutting down her concerns, it fueled the conversation in a much bigger way.

“I felt [my flagging] wasn’t necessarily heard; I think they thought they were starting a conversation, but they didn’t think they were starting this conversation. … It set up the context for the rest of the show,” she said.

“Black Twitter is real, and that’s what I told HBO. Black Twitter showed up, and so did everybody else…[Social media] is a big call-and-response, a new millennium call-and-response. You can’t do something shady right now and think that nobody’s gonna hear about it,” she added.

While she certainly never expected her presence on the show to turn into what it is today, it has become an important reminder that there is still a lot of industry push back when it comes to challenging the norms. Effie’s bold stance is a reminder that we cannot afford to be complacent in the positions we are in. If we have the opportunity to speak up or the power to change a situation, or at the very least start a conversation that challenges existing boundaries in a positive, more inclusive way, we should take it.

For Effie, she believes it is her duty to act, especially in an industry that is influential the world over. Here is what she says to filmmakers when it comes to diversity:

“Stop talking about it and be about it — what you produce, what you write, what you direct, make sure it’s diverse. Otherwise we don’t have any right to bitch about it.”

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