Brow Beat

How Effie Brown Became the Breakout Star of Project Greenlight

Effie Brown on Project Greenlight Season 4.

Photo by HBO.

Early on in Season 4, Project Greenlight—Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s reality show for first-time filmmakers—morphed into Effie vs. Jason: How Business Cripples Art, and Vice Versa. The season premiere foreshadowed the shift in focus when Effie Brown, a line producer who has more than a dozen films under her belt—and the only person of color in the room—voiced her concerns about choosing a director from among the finalists who would be able to handle the selected script’s sole black character, a prostitute. Damon’s infamously dismissive response spawned immediate backlash and a sarcastic hashtag. By Episode 2, it was clear that Effie had become the unexpected star of the show.

She was the guiding force of this season’s narrative, playing out her everyday role of hard-nosed, get-it-done movie budget enforcer while simultaneously becoming a symbol for Hollywood’s tenuous track record with engaging women and people of color. This a fine line to walk, and was made all the more loaded through her persistent foil, a stubborn, passionate filmmaker (and white male) named Jason Mann. As my colleague Willa Paskin wrote last week, “If one were casting a drama, one would have to be more subtle [than Project Greenlight] in creating antagonists.” You can point to any moment when Effie is onscreen and draw any number of conclusions about what it might mean. But there are three scenes in particular that help to illustrate how fascinatingly complicated her presence on the show was.

Peter Farrelly quits, Episode 4

At the end of the previous episode, a conference call between Effie, producer Marc Joubert, and Season 4 mentor Peter Farrelly quickly turned contentious. Effie was upset to learn that Jason went behind her back and asked Peter to look into ways for him to shoot on film (versus the cheaper option of digital), and immediately jumped on Peter for cutting in on her job. In this scene, Marc informs her that Farrelly and his brother have quit the show, and that she should reach out to him and sort things out. Effie’s response to this is unfiltered: “I will not be painted as the Angry Black Woman.” Fear of such a label persistently hovers in the back of many black women’s minds when interacting with white people in tense situations, particularly those in which the woman has power and influence. Effie’s refusal to be seen in that light is an extension of her interaction with Damon in the premiere episode—and so is Marc’s response, which is, “That’s not what this is about.”

Except that it is what this is about: That fateful conversation with Peter, as edited for the show, doesn’t shine the best light on Effie—even she has acknowledged that she could have initially taken a “softer approach” to voicing her concerns. But Gordon Ramsay she is not, and had she been a male, and especially a white male, it’s hard to imagine Peter, a Hollywood veteran who has undoubtedly worked with the best and the worst in the business, quitting the show over an argument as tame as that. And his feelings that he “can’t be himself around her,” as relayed to Effie by Marc, are heavily coded: Peter seems uncomfortable working alongside someone who confidently speaks her mind and tells him no, in an industry full of people just like her, but who also don’t happen to be black and female.

Testing Jason, Episode 6

A word that frequently arises whenever Effie is discussing Jason is “entitled.” From her standpoint, he’s a white guy who’s never made a feature film before, frequently questioning her judgment and challenging her efforts to keep the film on schedule and under budget. (Other producers, including Marc, also express their frustrations with Jason’s unwillingness to compromise his artistic vision, which frequently delays the production.) Her understanding of him in this way positions her as a sort of tough-love teacher—with an emphasis on the tough on the hard lessons of creating art within the confines of a money-fueled business. “Some people call it a compromise, I call it a pivot,” she says in a confessional. “And the pivot happens on every movie.”

Here, on day nine of filming, Jason complains to other crewmembers about having to shoot during the day rather than at night, and accuses Effie of “backing [him] into a corner.” Effie is aware of his resentment toward her, but does acquiesce by allowing them to shoot a scene into dusk. “How Jason can deal with it is going to be the true test of how Jason is as a director.” On one level, this is just a line producer who has to do her job while working with a novice, and needs to prepare him for the real world, quick. On another, she’s schooling a white guy who is probably used to getting his way on how little he really knows about the business, and she takes pride in being the person to bring his entitlement down a notch.

The only person of color in the cast is playing a chauffeur, Episode 6

In this same episode, Effie pulls a swift power move. After previously having it made known that she will not stand for a movie about the white and wealthy one percent in which the only person of color who appears onscreen does so in a subservient role, she spies on set … that the only person of color who will appear onscreen is in a subservient role, as the chauffeur. She calmly, but firmly, explains her point of view to Marc and Van Hayden, the first assistant director (who is also black), and the black actor is recast as a partygoer.

The moment emphasizes just how important it is to have people of color—not just one, since Van didn’t initially seem to share Effie’s concern—behind the scenes, making others aware of how certain things will appear to those who are not white. It also proves just how much Effie is often up against, because once again, Marc views her addressing of the issue as “unneeded drama.”

I mentioned earlier that her presence on the show is “complicated”—and it is refreshingly so. In the world of reality television in particular, black women have frequently been represented or mischaracterized as unfavorable stereotypes, most frequently as the Angry or Bitchy Black Woman. (Real Housewives of Atlanta, Omarosa, Tiffany Pollard aka “New York.”) Meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressed to find a significant number of black women who wield power—real, actual power, not just a host or judge of a meaningless competition series—on these shows, in the way that Effie does. The most prominent example would probably be Tyra Banks on the long-running America’s Next Top Model, in which she was the face and the producer of the show, deciding the fates of hundreds of models over the course of more than a decade. (And even she commited a few unfortunate racial faux pas.)

Unlike Banks, Effie’s prominent role as a decision-maker and leader on a reality show wasn’t exactly pre-ordained. In a fascinating interview with Indiewire, she revealed that she was caught off guard when she realized Project Greenlight would be so focused on her battles with Jason, and that she barely got paid to participate in the show. But she was able to reel in a bit more control of her image, demanding to see the final cut of the episode in which she argues with Peter. HBO was willing to make changes to her satisfaction.

And overall, Project Greenlight’s portrayal of Effie seems fair—we frequently see her colleagues, including Marc and HBO Films president Len Amato, praising her experience and work ethic, as one would expect an accomplished Hollywood producer to be praised. We see her get snappy, and at times condescending, with Jason, but we also see her “pivot” to meet his needs, frequently touting how she wants to get as close to his vision as she possibly can. And we see her make valid points about the way Hollywood fails to address race and gender in useful, progressive ways, right up to Sunday night’s finale, when she suggested to Jason that the character of Fiona in the first cut of the film felt underdeveloped when compared to the male co-stars. (Both a test audience and Amato would later echo her concerns.)

As one crewmember aptly put it, “You only have a finite amount of money and a finite amount of time and Effie’s been cast in that role of being the person that has to watch that line. There will always be a conflict between creative and financial, always.” Whether you see Effie as a meddling black woman who doesn’t work well with others or as a headstrong producer who knows what she’s doing and gets the job done will depend entirely on your feelings about women and people of color having power in general.