Effie Brown Talks 'Project Greenlight' Diversity Snafus: "Black Twitter Is Real"

Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Producers Guild of America
Effie Brown

“There was a time long ago when you’d just want to ignore people’s ethnicity and [genders]," said 'How to Get Away With Murder' creator Pete Nowalk at Produced By: NY. "But Viola Davis said, ‘The world is not colorblind. People notice that every day.'"

Effie Brown is nothing but excited by how the world has reacted to Project Greenlight’s controversial moments.

The producer spoke openly on the HBO docuseries’ recent snafus, one of which being that an episode was controversially titled "Hot Ghetto Mess." Earlier in the season, Matt Damon was widely criticized for his comments when he interrupted her on the topic of diversity in film, saying, "When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show."

“That was shocking and all of that, but what was interesting is the aftermath of that. That filmed in November, and I saw a cut of that in July,” she explained at a diversity panel at the 2015 Produced By: NY conference, held at New York City’s Time Warner Center and sponsored by The Harnisch Foundation. “Once I saw that, I said, ‘Y’all are really gonna let that in?’ … I was so surprised, I flagged it. I said, ‘That’s not gonna go over.’ 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.”

“Black Twitter is real, and that’s what I told HBO. You know what was beautiful? Black Twitter showed up, and so did everybody else,” Brown continued of the social media movement, with Project Greenlight director Jason Mann in the audience. “These things, people can turn on a drop of a hat, but everybody kept really strong with that. [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.”

Still, she’s proud of the series’ latest season specifically because “you’re actually able to see a qualified group of crew members that look like America.”

The panel’s conversation spanned a wide range of topics on diversity and equality regarding race and gender, including a call from LTW founder Lindsey Taylor Wood for more funding resources for women in the narrative space, where “there are far less” than in documentary, a note from MACRO founder Charles D. King of how he encouraged actors like Terrence Howard, Michael Ealy and Paula Patton to pursue non-black characters, and a spotlight from Gamechanger Films president Mynette Louie on the ripple effect of the lack of diversity among film critics. “True objective meritocracy requires a diversity of perspectives,” she said. “When meritocracy is defined by white men, it’s not true meritocracy.”

Of casting actors of color in lead roles, How to Get Away With Murder creator Pete Nowalk admittedly never set out to make the ABC series an industry example of diversity onscreen. “There was a time long ago when you’d just want to ignore people’s ethnicity and [genders] … But Viola Davis said, ‘The world is not colorblind. People notice that every day.’ What’s been so cool for me and a real learning opportunity, and have gotten positive feedback as well, is we do address it, and sometimes use it [to advance the plot]. … The new PC is to talk about it,” he explained, adding that Annalise’s meaningful moment of removing her wig was all Davis’ idea. “There’s something about the openheartedness of collaboration and listening to a person of color or a woman you’re working with, and learning something — it helps your show. It’s so obvious to me why this conversation needs to happen, and it’s in your self-interest to cast people of color.”

Louie later added that diversity is suddenly a priority in Hollywood because of box office grosses and network TV ratings, juxtaposing the success of Straight Outta Compton to flops like Aloha and Pan. “It’s all about money,” she said. “We are sick of whitewashing, and all those movies tanked! Hollywood is crass and there’s money on the table, and that’s why we’re talking about it.”

Altogether, panelists advised that change would come about through mentorship and conviction. Concluded Brown of the topic, “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.”