(Roadside Attractions)

“Stonewall” proves Matt Damon wrong: White guys can't compete on "merit" for every film

Perspective and empathy are essential skills that privilege dulls—and the rigged meritocracy game won't admit it


Imran Siddiquee
September 25, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)

In a recent New York Times article, responding to criticism of his new film "Stonewall," which many have said whitewashes and ciswashes what happened during the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, director Roland Emmerich defended his work, saying, “What can I say? I put all I know as a filmmaker into this.”

Emmerich, the director of blockbusters like "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," expresses confidence that, in regards to filmmaking, he knows what he’s doing:

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Asked if he would have done anything differently, given the backlash, Mr. Emmerich emphatically replied: “No. No.” He noted that he had shown the film to two veterans of the Stonewall riots, Martin Boyce and Williamson L. Henderson, “to make it as accurate as possible.”

It’s worth noting though that both Boyce and Henderson, like Emmerich, are gay white men. And the film’s screenwriter, Jon Robin Baitz (also white), says in the same article that Emmerich was likely drawn to the fictional story at the heart of "Stonewall," the journey of a gay white man named Danny, simply because he “located himself” in this character’s saga.

The fact that Emmerich didn’t connect instead with the true stories of the black and Latina trans women who were leaders at Stonewall, like Marsha P. Johnson (who appears as a supporting character) or Sylvia Rivera (who does not appear), is precisely the point many have taken issue with. As Lexi Adsit writes: "What I can’t wrap my head around is why we need a fictional retelling of a historical event that doesn’t center on the communities that gave up so much to make it happen."

Adsit goes on to say that this marks a further erasure for the transgender community, and especially trans women of color. Emmerich not only centers whiteness in his film, but he casts a non-trans person to play a trans character (Otoja Abit, a cisgender man, plays Johnson). Which seems to disregard the very equity that activists like Johnson were seeking in 1969.

As Viola Davis so eloquently reminded us at the Emmys, representation on-screen matters. But Emmerich's and Baitz's lack of vision in this regard is not only dismissive of a marginalized community, it also suggests a fundamental flaw in how they approach filmmaking.

In another recent interview with BuzzFeed, Emmerich said, “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people.” He not only located himself in "Stonewall," but his intention was for straight audiences to find themselves in Danny’s story as well.

But if the interest in making the movie was rooted in creating an empathetic experience, what does it mean if that empathy was limited from the start? If in pursuit of a cisgender white audience, the director lost sight of everyone else?

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Emmerich himself seems to acknowledge that understanding your characters is important to filmmaking, seeing as how he sought the counsel of people who he believed knew Stonewall better than he did — Boyce and Henderson — in order to ensure his work captured the real experience.

Yet, most reviews suggest that the end product is less than impressive , on multiple levels. At Vanity Fair, critic Richard Lawson calls it “hackishly made” and says, “Emmerich takes one of the most politically charged periods of the last century and turns it into a bland, facile coming-of-age story.” And Alonso Duralde at The Wrap adds that “it’s nearly impossible to care about what’s happening on screen.”

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What would have changed, if anything, if Emmerich had sought the counsel of trans women of color? If he had at least one woman of color in a creative role? Would he have made a better film?

Perhaps he might have at least made one with more empathy?

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When Matt Damon interrupted producer Effie Brown on the first episode of "Project Greenlight" this season, claiming that “when you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show,” he wasn’t just rejecting her point that who stands behind-the-camera in Hollywood matters as much as who stands in front of it. He was also, in that moment, like Emmerich, insisting on his own knowledge of cinema and his own ability to create great films.

Even in his subsequent response to the controversy, Damon implied that his comments are what “started a conversation about diversity” in Hollywood, not Brown’s. He’s cleverly repositioned himself as the expert.

Later episodes may reveal that Brown is in fact a protagonist of the HBO show, and that her difficulties in being heard are part of the story being told, but that doesn’t quite get at the point she makes in that initial exchange.

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Brown’s perspective, that the identity of the director matters toward the construction of the film, challenges a more deeply held belief that many in the industry, like Damon and Emmerich, seem to hold — that white men are just as capable as anyone else of turning a given story into great cinema (if not more capable). Meaning, regardless of the plot or background of the characters — which, in this particular case, included a black woman involved in sex work — Damon seems to believe that a talented white man can elicit just as much cinematic power from the script as any person of color.

This is what he implies when he says their decision should be based “entirely on merit, leaving all other factors out of it,” or as Brittney Cooper describes it, a call to the “myth of meritocracy”:

Unmoved, Damon plays the merit card — the highest trump card. Merit is the supposedly race-neutral rubric that everyone should naturally agree is the best way to judge candidates, all questions of race aside.

Yet, if Damon has watched Brown’s most well-known recent work — Justin Simien’s "Dear White People" — it seems odd that he would still hold this view. Because the protagonists of that film, which Brown helped produce (and which had to be one of the reasons she was invited to be on "Project Greenlight" this season), are a gay black man and a straight biracial woman — the former is a journalist, the later is a filmmaker — and a fundamental theme in the film is how the white perspective has historically distorted the representation of black people in the media. Both of these characters in "Dear White People," Lionel and Sam, struggle against white institutional powers attempting to squash their visions, but ultimately triumph by producing singular works.

One wonders then if Damon believes that "Dear White People" itself could have been directed to the same effect by a straight white man. Or if he believes, in the way that Emmerich considers his own experience adequate to tell the story of the Stonewall Riots, that he can empathize with the black experience in America as well as Simien or Brown.

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But does Damon truly have the same “merit” as Brown to decide who is best suited to direct films about characters of color?

As Cooper goes on to write:

Not only do Matt Damon’s statements reflect a troubling belief in the myth of meritocracy, but they also betray a troubling belief in notions of racial colorblindness. Many White men are taught to believe that they can tell any story well that they choose to tell. Whiteness, particularly white maleness, is situated as marker of universality.

She points to a possibility that might surprise many in Hollywood: Oscar-winner Matt Damon lacks the credentials to overrule Effie Brown on the matter of diversity in cinema.

It’s not only that he, like Emmerich, is in a position of privilege — and in dismissing a black woman’s perspective he gives support to the oppressive status quo — it’s that his institutional power likely limits his talent in this arena as well.

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In Jean Luc-Godard’s classic "Pierrot Le Fou," Samuel Fuller describes film as, “in a word: emotion.” Roger Ebert once described them more specifically: “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”

So it’s worth noting that a 2013 study at Wilfrid Laurier University found that those with the most societal power, like Damon, seem to have less ability to express empathy than those without power. As NPR reported at the time:

Researchers randomly put participants in the mindset of feeling either powerful or powerless. They asked the powerless group to write a diary entry about a time they depended on others for help. The powerful group wrote entries about times they were calling the shots. Then, everybody watched a simple video. In it, an anonymous hand squeezes a rubber ball a handful of times — sort of monotonously. While the video ran, [Sukvhinder] Obhi’s team tracked the participants’ brains, looking at a special region called the mirror system.

What they found was that the dominant group had less brain activity in the “mirror system,” which is often linked to feelings of compassion, than those who were left more vulnerable. The study went on to conclude:

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Rather than seek individuating information about new interaction partners, those with power tend to rely on stereotypes…Since stereotyping often serves to rationalize prejudice toward a group, our results may help to explain the previously reported link between increased prejudice and reduced resonance.

In other words, being at the top in oppressive social structures tends to give one a limited perspective on those “below” you, and thus privileged groups often express less compassion than those from less privileged groups. Which, when applied to the process of performing, creating and watching film, suggests that due to a narrow scope in terms of who is included, Hollywood may have significantly limited its own ability to create resonant cinematic experiences.

Which is just another way of saying that it’s generally harder for white men like Matt Damon to empathize, whether on-screen or otherwise, with the life of a black woman, than it is for Effie Brown. Yet, despite how intuitive this might be, it doesn’t seem to be a common factor — as "Project Greenlight" reveals — in deciding who is most qualified to direct a given story.

Indeed, in his refusal to acknowledge the "white savior" qualities of his story, Emmerich displays the very lack of empathy the researchers at Wilfred Laurier theorized about, as does Damon, in his treatment of Brown — dismissing her comments and talking over her. And, if filmmaking was actually the “merit”-based world that it is described to be, the other white men in the room would have pointed this out — and given more credence to what Brown was saying; that having a woman and a person of color behind the camera might make this film more sensitive to the portrayal of a woman of color.

In her 2014 book, "The Empathy Exams," Leslie Jamison writes that “empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.” Great films invite us into their worlds, and into the shoes of their characters, by constantly showing or implying that very “horizon of context.” Which is how "12 Years a Slave" can move us through its telling of Solomon Northup’s escape from slavery, even if it’s unable to show us all 12 years of it. But why "Stonewall," because of its shallow investigation of the moment, is “not a movie that gives us any perspective on that time.”

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It would seem logical, then, that directors who have the best ability to provide emotional context for their characters are the ones most likely to create great cinema.

It’s not that individual white men like Damon are incapable of caring about others — he has shown in his work an ability to understand the devastating effects of economic inequityglobal warming and a broken educational system on society, and clearly people have long connected with his work — but simply that he may not always be the best person to make decisions about the stories of those less privileged than himself.

In fact, a recent USC study found that having a black director statistically increases the number of black cast members, and that having a women as the producer reduces how often women are sexualized on-screen. Meaning, the identities of the people behind the camera certainly impacts what's on-screen.

Moreover, in the aggregate and over time, as a result of their collective position in society, an industry producing films mostly about and by able-bodied straight cisgender white men like Damon is likely lacking in the kind of feeling that a more diverse array of film subjects and filmmakers would have produced.

Which is not to say that Damon or Jason Mann, the white man ultimately chosen as the director on "Project Greenlight," can’t make great films about people who look different than themselves — they certainly can — but that their films can benefit from the perspectives of the groups they’re looking to represent. Just as Emmerich might have made a more powerful work had he reached out to a more diverse group.

For instance, in this year’s "Tangerine," Sean Baker’s still-imperfect dramedy about two best friends who are sex workers in Los Angeles, the white director’s fairly straightforward story is given more weight simply by focusing on — and including in the creative process — the lives and perspectives of two trans women of color. In the hands of Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who helped craft the story and dialogue, something as small as the sharing of some makeup becomes nearly transcendent.

We should be thankful then that women like Brown, Gina Prince-Bythewood and others in the industry continue to give us a glimpse at what this alternative standard of cinema, created by or focused more on women of color, might make emotionally possible. Which, again, is not to say that all black and brown women are inherently better filmmakers or film subjects, but simply that it’s a likely outcome of living within white supremacist patriarchy that those who have been made to feel the most outcast have the most experience, overall, with understanding the full gamut of human emotions. And if Ebert was right about cinema’s role in producing feeling, one has to wonder how much more this “machine” would be capable of if it were in the hands of the most empathetic.


Imran Siddiquee

Imran Siddiquee is a freelance writer and filmmaker. He was a founding member of The Representation Project. Follow him @imransiddiquee

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dear White People Effie Brown Hollywood Matt Damon Movies Project Greenlight Roland Emmerich Stonewall

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