Merit vs Diversity: Matt Damon Edition

By now you probably have what happened on the season premiere of Project Greenlight, the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck vanity project on HBO where they pick some deserving aspiring director and mentor them through making a feature film using a pre-selected script.

On the season opener, the script was revealed to be rom-com, the story of a white guy who gets left at the altar and winds up marrying black prostitute named Harmony instead. The panel who selected the winning contestant consisted one single WOC and several white guys, one of whom was Damon. The WOC was the highly successful Effie Brown of Dear White People fame. During the discussion, Brown pointed that the script could be problematic in that Harmony could wind up being one big racial trope and they needed to look carefully at who among the contestants could avoid this distressingly common pitfall. She suggested the directing team that consisted of a Asian man and a white woman had a better chance at being sensitive to the material.

White Bro Damon decided that the black woman needed some help understanding the true meaning of diversity and interrupted her. “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show,” he said. According to him, they were going to decided the winner based on “merit.”

There is so much wrong with this it’s hard know where to start, but we have unlimited disk space on our hosting plan so I’ll give it a shot.

When a key character in the script is a black woman, would it have killed Damon to actually listen to the black woman’s concerns? He interrupted her and dismissed her, twice. That’s a dick move.

Then there’s Damon’s idea that as long as you cast a POC in the film, it doesn’t matter who is behind the camera. Wrong again Mattie. According to the latest version of the Boxed In study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University,

“Prime-time television shows with at least one woman executive producer or creator featured more female characters, and employed substantially greater percentages of women as directors, writers, and editors, than programs with exclusively male executive producers or creators.”

In other words who is in charge determines who works on the project both in front of and behind the camera. No surprise there.

Now let’s look at the issue of merit vs diversity, which I think is the big one here. Damon’s defenders have latched onto the idea that the winning director would be chosen on only on “merit” like a lamprey. Somehow the defenders of white privilege have come to the conclusion that diversity and merit are mutually exclusive. One small problem with this world view, they’re not. When you look at what Effie was actually trying to say, she was looking for someone who wouldn’t let the material descend into racial cliches. I fail to see how this idea conflicts with standards of directorial merit, seems to me finding a director who can elevate the material above the usual tropes is a pretty darn good idea.

The problem with “merit” is that everyone has their own definition. Objective criteria, like say, who runs 100 meter dash the fastest, is actually rather rare in the real world. Damon wanted to pick the best storyteller, Brown wanted the best storyteller for the script they had to work with. It’s not like Brown didn’t want to pick the winner based merit, she simply had a different definition of merit. Here’s the part a lot of people are having trouble with, her definition was every bit as valid as Damon’s.

The only way you can think the diversity and merit are mortal enemies is if you think that racism is deader than the rat Donald Trump wears on his head. Tip: it’s not. Diversity isn’t about hiring the unqualified minority over the qualified white dude, it’s about giving the qualified minority a chance by accepting you have biases and making an effort to overcome those biases.

Brown might wind up having the last laugh. After the selection committee picked another white bro as this years mentoree, he turned out to be a class A douche wiener. Evidently “plays well with others” was also not a part of the slection criteria. I suspect Damon is modifying his idea of “merit” about now.

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