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Confessions From Above the Celluloid Ceiling: The Truth About White Male Privilege

Confessions From Above the Celluloid Ceiling: The Truth About White Male Privilege

I don’t remember the first time I really thought about white male privilege, but in retrospect, one incident stands out. I was visiting a school where I was hoping to shoot a scene for a film. There was a question over whether or not I needed to accompany my producer and line producer — both of whom are women of color — to a particular meeting with one of the school staff we needed to convince. My producer made the call. “Better to have a white guy with us,” she stated drily. “Probably gives us more of a chance than two brown girls.”

While she said it tongue in cheek, there’s no doubt there was truth behind her calculation. In her estimation, having a white man in tow in this very white part of England really could be the difference between a yes and a no.

Yes or no. That’s really at the heart of so much that happens in this industry, and to whom, and why. Who gets the yes vote? Who gets the green light? And who gets no after no after no?

The truth is, we all get a lot of nos. Working in this industry feels like a daily struggle for almost everyone, including most white men. There aren’t enough jobs for any of us. I certainly feel like I’m hearing no more than yes in any given month. When this is your experience, it can be hard to realize your privileges rather than your disadvantages.

But while scarcity affects everyone, it does not affect everyone equally. There are few opportunities, certainly, but there is also very little equality of opportunity.

So I have come to the conclusion that one of the best, or at least the first, things I can do as a white male filmmaker who cares about equality is simply to be honest about the privilege that I benefit from every day, even when it doesn’t feel like it. People say you don’t see privilege until you don’t have it, but over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to see my privilege very clearly, and there are a few things I want to be honest about.

Gay men can benefit as much as straight men from white male privilege.

It really frustrates me when powerful white gay men in the industry present themselves as some kind of persecuted minority. This is not to say straight white men don’t benefit from the culture at large; of course they do. One of the very first pieces of advice I received from someone in the industry (a white man, naturally) was “Don’t get a girlfriend for the first few years, because you won’t have time for it.” Ever since then, I have had men start to speak to me in coded terms that assume I’m straight — for example, discussing casting options in a way that presumes a sexual attraction to women.

At this point, an alarm bell rings in my head that I am about to be treated to the Full Bro Experience, and I find a way to ease out of it. But this is never so explicit as screaming “I’m gay!” It’s more a case of subtly deflecting the balls that are being tossed in my direction. Sure, if I decided to start talking about the graphic fisting scene I wanted to include in my film, then maybe my gayness would become an inhibiting factor, but until that moment, even with people who know I’m gay, it’s not present in the room in the same way that my white maleness is. We can turn it on and off as we choose. And though I’m not proud to admit it, most gay men are well aware of this fact, and know how to use it to mitigate possible disadvantage.

Then of course, there are all those powerful gay male executives. Oh and by the way, I know plenty of straight male filmmakers, not to mention gay ones, who know how to work it with these men like you wouldn’t believe.

People care more about our vision or our ideas than our track record.

This is something that continues to surprise and embarrass me. While a woman can have her career killed by a poorly received film, for a man, it may not even be a factor. I have only directed a micro-budget feature, but shortly after that, I found myself in the frame to write and direct a full-scale, multi-million-pound feature. I had numerous meetings and eventually became attached to the project before it ultimately fell apart, as these things do. But there was a moment, many months into the process, that I realized to my amazement that these people hadn’t watched or read my previous work. They hadn’t because they didn’t care. What they liked was me, the ideas I pitched, the energy I brought to the project — “in the room.” And the scary thing was, I almost liked them for this and wished that more people had that kind of faith in young talent. But I am painfully aware that they only ever do when that talent is male.

We get seen for jobs that women are more qualified for.

I recently got very close to getting a job on a show with a heavily female cast. The producer and the showrunner were both white men, and while I remember hoping that there were women in the running for this particular job, I am not going to claim I was bold or generous enough to stand up and say, “This job should really go to a woman instead of me.” But in my final meeting, I did raise a number of gender-related concerns I had with the script. I’m not sure if this is what failed to get me the job (not that it will stop me next time). But guess who did get it instead? Yes, another white man.

The job opportunities I have described are not big, flashy jobs that everyone knows, like the Spider-Man gig, but that’s part of my point. I have my own career struggles, and so do the vast majority of white men in the industry. But that doesn’t mean we should leave it just to uber-powerful and successful men like Paul Feig and Judd Apatow (though we should certainly hold them to greater account).

It can take a leap of faith to realize that sharing your privilege does not mean losing out. My friend Lexi Alexander recently made me aware of a young British filmmaker named Cecile Emeke who, to Lexi’s amazement, did not have representation. I watched Cecile’s work and loved it, so I sent it to my agent, who ended up signing Cecile. It took me virtually no effort and in fact gave me some satisfaction, but even so, there was a moment where I hesitated and thought, Is there a risk here for me? What if my agent signs her and puts her up for work that might have gone to me?

The truth is, that isn’t how it works. But even if it was, and we did end up in the running for the same job, with me being aware of all the privileges I have outlined above, I would have to be a real coward — no, a real bastard — to pre-emptively prevent that situation.

The incident at the school I mentioned at the start of this piece was the first time I can recall being my presence being “required” due to my gender since a university friend asked me to walk her home at night. But in that case, the threat — assault, rape — was obvious. In this instance, it was far more subtle. So subtle, in fact, that if the woman at the school had said no to my producer’s filming request, she could never have pinned the decision to her race or gender, and in fact could have suffered greatly from attempting to do so.

Of course, there is a further conversation to have about what the hell we should do about this sorry situation. But when people like Colin Trevorrow are so in denial about male privilege and how it functions, it does feel as though there is value in starting by saying, Yes, the odds are stacked in our favor, it’s really embarrassing and unfair and we benefit from it every day.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a screenwriter and director based in London. He tweets @mhknott.

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