Producer Effie Brown: "People Didn't Want to Work With Me" After Calling Out Matt Damon on 'Project Greenlight' Diversity Issues (Guest Column)

Effie Brown - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Subject

The Gamechanger Films CEO reflects on the backlash she received following a controversial conversation she had on the HBO reality competition in 2015: "I spoke up and got summarily smacked back down."

The producer reflects on the backlash she received in 2015 after arguing on-air with Matt Damon, an EP on Project Greenlight, a reality show that followed filmmakers as they directed features for the first time. Damon admonished Brown that diversity is for “the casting of the film, not the casting of the show,” or behind the scenes. She responded with a sharp “Wow,” signaling the frustrations faced by people of color in the industry, the fallout of which she describes here:

I’m grateful that it was me. I’m grateful I had the common sense of my ancestors — my mother, my grandmother, my family — to know how to react in the moment because it could have gone many different ways. A lot of the time, most of the time, there aren’t cameras there when you are suffering microaggressions. Take Matt Damon out of it, this is happening every day. People just saw that one conflict, but there were others.

I only got paid to make the movie; I never got paid to do the series — ever. That’s exploitative. Sometimes I see it playing when I get on a plane and I haven’t seen a single penny. They treated us secondary even though, unbeknownst to me at the time, the show was built around my experiences. I was the creative producer in charge and yet, I was still viewed as something less than my title, experience and treated as such. I’m grateful to the producers, Magical Elves, who let that part of the story and the conflict stay in the series. I think they thought people would get it and hear how bad it can be when you’re the “lonely only” one in the room.

After I did Project Greenlight — and this is no secret — I suffered a huge backlash. I didn’t work for a while. People didn’t want to work with me because I spoke truth to power. People who speak up are usually marginalized and pushed back, called difficult, confrontational, you name it. I spoke up and got summarily smacked back down. I did not get embraced with open arms, nor did it work in my favor … at first.

Lee Daniels picked up the phone and called me, “Hey, girl, how are you doing?” I said that I wasn’t doing well, so he used his power and his influence to scoop me up and give me a job at his company. He still had to fight to get me on — even the studio didn’t want me; that is the truth. But Lee doubled down. That’s what often needs to happen, you need someone with power and the courage of their convictions to help. That’s what Lee did and so did my allies and Black Twitter — they had my back 1,000 percent.

It took five years to be released from that stigma. I’m CEO/Co-Owner of Gamechanger Films now, and I’m in a position of being invited to the table to help leverage the same access for all underrepresented groups — women, people of color, those with disabilities, LGBTQ, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian artists. I’m also the chair of the Inclusion Advisory committee for the new Academy Museum. It took time, but I’m grateful to be where I am today. I wouldn’t do anything differently, but again, I was only able to be here thanks to allies, Lee and Black Twitter.

It’s heartening to see that there is a massive reckoning happening now and it’s multicultural. I feel like people are looking at the history of it all and seeing this is not new, there are just more people watching. Here’s the truth: We’re in a moment and hopefully it’s not a fad. Look at the class photos circulating [published by The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield] that show how über white those who have decision-making power are. Even when you go to the lower ranks, it’s still overwhelmingly white and male. If you’re a person of color or any other underrepresented group, good luck pitching your story because they don’t understand and may not care. It’s not malicious, it’s just difficult because they have never really had to consider you or your experience. You still have to pitch it, tell them what it’s like to be you, where you’re coming from, and try to not be offensive.

Hire, mentor, invest. That’s my advice on how big companies can make changes. The bigger dogs at the studios — the funders and the financiers — need to step up, and that’s when real change will take effect. Give people long-term deals, strategic partnerships, contracts, and consulting gigs for women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Asians, Indigenous artists. Are you funding these minority-owned companies yet? Invest and provide the resources to people at all levels, including emerging artists, and mentor them — in front of and behind the camera. That’s my ask.

I know people are scurrying now and that’s OK, as long as it leads to some real change in terms of who gets to tell what stories. Stories have the power to change lives because stories humanize the other. If you are watching us every week, seeing us on the big screen and cheering for us, it’s harder to rape us, kill us and put us in jail. You see us as a part of instead of apart from. We have to be optimistic, that’s the cloth we’re cut from. But I am also optimistic with a little bit of side-eye, that’s how I’ve been living. Now that there is this great swell of people saying that things don’t seem quite right, that’s how things will change.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.