As sane, reasonable members of society, the fantastical entertainment industry raises important questions. Questions like, who keeps greenlighting Adam Sandler movies? Why wasn’t Wild given a heftier Oscar push? Why does Jennifer Lawrence have to write essays demanding to be paid a wage comparable to her male counterparts? How in the name of all that is holy did Emma Stone get cast as an Asian-American in Aloha?
Answers appear in surprising places. One such surprise is this season of Project Greenlight, the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck reality series that promises a glimpse into the true Hollywood filmmaking process. The show originally debuted in 2001, with a third season running in 2005. Ten years later, the series made a random return on HBO with some new rules reflecting the times—the completed film would not be a conventional theatrical release, but rather the ever-popular premium cable and on-demand feature. It’s a move that cuts costs and liability while giving the aging series a shot of relevancy.
But much more has transpired in this decade than the increased power of cable and the death of Blockbuster. Enter Effie Brown, the unintentional voice of a generation that Hollywood is lagging three decades behind. Brown was brought onto Project Greenlight as a producer to manage a film directed by Greenlight contest winner Jason Mann. Brown is an enormously successful industry veteran with production credits including But I’m a Cheerleader, Dear White People, and Real Women Have Curves. Her resume is a lengthy testament to fresh, diverse stories in a lily-white major studio landscape. On paper, she looks like a dream candidate for a first-time director’s team.
Don’t we all look so beautiful on paper?
The fact is, Brown is more than qualified to produce a glorified made-for-TV movie. But she’s also cast in a reality show that is the pet project of two aging straight white males (one of which appears in a man-bun), with two frat boys (the Farrelly brothers of Dumb and Dumber fame) mentoring a young straight white male director plucked from thousands of amateur contest entries. Winner Jason Mann is @GuyInYourMFA on celluloid, a man who wastes no time after the announcement of his winning opportunity to corner Damon and Affleck and insist that he can’t film a movie if it isn’t on traditional film (versus more cost-efficient, feasible and modern digital recording). HBO and the stars hem and haw, but eventually “admire his tenacity” and kick in the extra Panavision budget.
Mann refuses to pick a Los Angeles shooting location (“these mansions aren’t Old World Connecticut Money enough”) and rejects the original movie script in favor of his own story project. He’s insufferably myopic, and says things like “I wish we could have mined deeper into that scene” and writes dialogue that includes a butler announcing “Someone has defecated on the Bentley.”
He’s an East Coast art school caricature that needed a foil. But Effie Brown, with rare reality show dimension, transcends a refractive stereotype. As she proclaims in a voiceover, “I will not be the angry black woman.” Brown’s wish comes blessedly true. Throughout the series she maintains her power by giving the reality show what it “needs” (a producer) without slipping into what its creators “want,” which is the classic on-camera freakout. The GIF. By remaining strong in the face of pure bullshit, the arc the show wants to construct (this by-the-numbers woman trouncing pure artistic vision) has no legs. Despite undermining from almost everyone around her we see on television, she is not the show’s villain. She is its audience.
Despite what the Farrelly brothers and Damon/Affleck have enjoyed through years of the Hollywood status quo, audiences are changing. America is changing. The film that Project Greenlight chronicles, titled The Leisure Class, smacks of the poorly aged Wedding Crashers. Tired zany antics, the 1%’s cash, female characters written so flat that labeling them “cardboard” would be an insult to well-designed and insulated box material.
As an audience, we wonder: why this script? Why this movie that none of us would ever choose to see of our own volition?
It isn’t until you see the narrow filter that these filmmaking decisions run through, and the echo chamber of thought, that the answer is clear. These movies get made because voices like Brown’s are routinely silenced.
Matt Damon was forced on the PR defensive after Episode 1 of Project Greenlight aired, when Brown was attempting to caution the staff on handling the original script (a Farrelly story about an African-American prostitute). “When it comes to diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show,” he declared. “Do you want the best director?”
“Ooof. Wow, okay,” Effie says, biting her tongue so hard we’re expecting a characteristic Game of Thrones gush to burst forth. We watch one of Hollywood’s most powerful actors equate a diverse crew as a sub-par one, and while we can rage from our Twitter handles, Brown’s job is to eat it up and make the best of it.
The undercutting and microaggressions thrown in Brown’s path—the path to delivering a film that’s on-time and within budget while catering as closely to the director’s creative vision as possible—are vast. In a similar scene, Brown reiterates her insistence that in such a white, upper class film, she will not allow a minority character to be cast in a subservient role. “We need to change the narrative,” she says.
YAAAAASSSS, we Tweet.
So who shows up on set? The single African American actor called, to play a chauffeur. Brown snuffs out the tone-deaf move, subbing the actor in for a partygoer. Her fellow producer begrudgingly admits that it was a wise move, but not without rolling his eyes and lamenting Brown’s perchance for “drama.” The microaggression is real.
After weeks of sparring with Director Mann and completing her job (the movie is on-time, within budget and delivers on an exhaustive laundry list of artistic demands), Brown is invited to screen the director’s cut with a friend. It’s an odd scene to watch; she looks as though she’s trying to have a good time, laughing as her friend appears bewildered. At the conclusion Brown congratulates Mann, but notes that the central female character is lacking dimension and agency. There is a shrug and a “maybe” and terribly awkward hug.
In the next screening, the room is filled with Mann’s white male entourage. They laugh and high-five, like Vincent Chase just got cast for Aquaman II. It isn’t until a test screening with a roomful of strangers that the criticism is repeated: “I just didn’t connect with the female character.”
In these last moments of the series, the audience, the collective We, reflect the ugly truth back on the backwards filmmakers. The attendees do not laugh. One is shown nodding off. Their verdict is clear: This is not a unique story. This is not a funny story. This is not an entertaining story. All the expensive film processing in the world can’t give dimension to something as musty as The Leisure Class. With a resource and talent like Brown, this season of Project Greenlight had the opportunity to create something that the zeitgeist might actually care about.
The movie may have been disposable, but from the ashes of cardboard characters, she rose with fully rendered human complexity. Her presence may not have saved a doomed production, but it served a much more important purpose: a challenge to the notion that films need to be made the same way by the same people. She asked the questions that we murmur from far away, and she stood up for the most basic notions of diversity that we’d like to think of as logical and legally mandated. She gave us a glimpse of the exhaustive work that still needs to be done. She was an example of what the rule, instead of the exception, could be.
Image Courtesy Of: Variety