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Daily Reads: Project Greenlight’s Controversial Reboot, Trevor Noah on the New Daily Show’s ‘Epidemic of Blackness,’ and More

Daily Reads: Project Greenlight's Controversial Reboot, Trevor Noah on the New Daily Show's 'Epidemic of Blackness,' and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. What Makes Matty Run?: The Essential, Surprisingly Controversial Reboot of “Project Greenlight.” 
“Project Greenlight” debuted on HBO in the winter of 2001. The documentary TV series follows first-time filmmakers given the chance to direct their first feature. The original run of “Project Greenlight” generated minimal interest, with its original run ending in 2005 on Bravo. But HBO has revived the series in 2015 and brought it back for a fourth season and it’s surprisingly essential and controversial. Grantland’s Mark Harris explores the new season of “Project Greenlight” and what makes it so interesting.

Surprisingly, it’s the presence of Damon and Affleck that underscores how much has changed. When “Good Will Hunting” vaulted them to prominence (and a shared screenwriting Oscar) 18 years ago, they were seen as the scrappy outsiders who had somehow cracked the system, Boston bros who proved you didn’t have to be a player to make it. (The greatest trick Harvey Weinstein ever pulled was to convince the world that “Good Will Hunting” was a gritty indie rather than a polished Hollywood underdog story, but never mind.) When “Greenlight” debuted in 2001, the thematic impetus for Damon and Affleck’s presence was the notion that they were now paying it forward: We did it, you can too, here’s how. That’s largely gone. In 2015, Affleck is Batman, Damon is Bourne, and the last time either of them directed an indie was never. They’re old pros, consummate insiders, and middle-aged men, and they don’t really want to hear about your stinking ideals. I’m talking mostly about Damon now; in the two episodes of “Greenlight” that have aired this season, Affleck has been present but seemed somehow peripheral, as if he’d been on the Warner lot looking at Batcave schematics, gotten a call, and thought, “Shit, we’re doing this today?” This time out, Damon is the stronger on-camera personality, and the version of himself he has presented — I assume volitionally, since he’s one of the show’s executive producers — does not flatter him. He’s now the guy who says no, or you don’t get it, or that’s not how it’s done, and the most interesting thing about the series is that the filmmaker they’ve chosen, a guy named Jason Mann who will get to make an HBO feature for a tight $3 million, seems to hate the whole setup. Can I do it on film instead of digital? Damon: No. Can I toss out the crappy script you gave me and shoot my own screenplay? Damon: Are you fuckin’ kidding me? So far, Damon has not looked particularly happy on the show; it can’t be much fun serving as defender of the status quo (and to his and the show’s credit, his word isn’t always law), but that appears to be the role he’s chosen. That defense includes the subject of diversity, which was at the center of a Twitter tempest after the first episode aired. “Greenlight” has brought on African American producer Effie Brown (who made last year’s Sundance hit “Dear White People”) to shepherd the production, and in the season premiere, in a meeting before Mann was chosen, she brought up diversity in the course of advocating for a filmmaker of color. Damon cut her off, telling her that the time to consider diversity was in the staffing and casting of the movie, not in the selection of the director. Damon was slammed for various explicable-in-140-characters offenses (he interrupted! He mansplained! He didn’t check his privilege!), and he semi-apologized (“My comments were part of a much broader conversation about diversity…I am sorry that they offended some people”). To my eyes, the “interrupting” felt largely like a product of editing, and the “mansplaining” was what used to be called “having a disagreement.” (The clip that was widely passed along on the Internet ended with a shocked Brown saying, “Ooof. Wow. OK.” In the show, she went on to rebut him persuasively.) Nonetheless, it was particularly disheartening to hear Damon, on the air, draw a contrast between “diversity” and “merit.” This specious “You can have one or the other, but not both” reasoning — now in its trillionth year as a staple of bad hiring practices — is troubling enough; to hear Damon articulate it as a piece of hard-won wisdom is…well, congratulations, sir: You are now part of the problem, and I would like to think that your 1997 self would have looked 44-year-old you squarely in the eye and said, “That’s bullshit.”

2. Trevor Noah on his “Daily Show” Plans and Jon Stewart’s Advice. 
Trevor Noah, the new host of “The Daily Show,” is set to take over the show this Monday. Noah has garnered some controversy over the past few months, especially his “problematic” tweets from years past, but he’s now settling into the role that will either propel the show forward into a new era or keep it stalled in neutral. The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff interviews Noah on his version of “The Daily Show.”

Q: Wyatt Cenac, the former “Daily Show” correspondent, has talked about a heated fight that he and Jon Stewart had over racial content on the program. Do you think “The Daily Show” has a diversity problem? 

A: I wouldn’t call it a problem. I would call it a blind spot. A blind spot that Jon realized and started very actively pursuing. But there’s two types of racial blind spots. There’s active, and there’s passive. Active is you saying, “I will not hire black people or Hispanic people or females.” Passive is you going: “I’m open to everyone. I will hire anyone that comes in the door.” But you don’t realize you’re limited by your current network of who you know, and what you know is often [people like] you. When you’re cognizant of it, it’s easier to work on.

Q: Is it still the case that “The Daily Show” has only one black writer? 

A: Since I’ve joined, blackness has tremendously increased at the show. There’s been an epidemic of blackness. We’ve added on Baratunde Thurston, who’s heading up our digital division. You’ve got David Kibuuka, who’s from South Africa. You’ve got Joseph Opio, who’s from Uganda. We’ve hired additional women, as well. It’s something that I’m very cognizant of. Because I know how easy it is for a system to unwittingly fall prey to, let’s call it, an institutionalized segregation. If you don’t become part of the thing that enables people to become the best, when will anyone get the opportunity to be the best? That is always the decision you have to make. Sometimes you go, hey, this person is a raw diamond. Maybe they don’t have as much experience — you know why they don’t have as much experience. So off the bat they’re at a disadvantage. But if you see in them the potential to become great, you give them the chance.

3. The Blinding Cinematic Whiteness of “Black Mass.” 
The Johnny Depp-vehicle “Black Mass” tells the story of Whitey Bulger, the famous gangster who served as a FBI informant beginning in 1975, a claim that Bulger denies to this day. The film has garnered a mixed critical reception, with many claiming it’s a retread of older films and tired material (especially Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” which was inspired by the Bulger case). However, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that the film’s biggest sin is its “cinematic whiteness.”

Scott Cooper’s film “Black Mass” is told in flashback, framed by recent confessions by James (Whitey) Bulger’s partners in crime, and the first of these flashbacks is dated, in an on-screen title, to 1975. That’s the time when South Boston, the largely Irish neighborhood where Bulger grew up, lived, and operated, was national news, mostly in conjunction with one word, “busing.” In 1974, a federal judge ordered that Boston’s public schools be desegregated by sending white students from schools in South Boston to schools in the predominantly black neighborhood of Roxbury, and vice versa. Many residents of South Boston responded with fury, threatening violence against the black students who arrived by bus. Most white children being bused refused to go. From watching “Black Mass,” you’d never know that these events coincided in any way with those seen in the movie or that any of the movie’s characters had anything to do with them. But one of them — William Bulger, the gangster’s brother (portrayed in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch) — was a state senator at the time, representing South Boston, and he himself made national news, as in this report from the “Times,” from 1975, forecasting the following year’s Democratic Presidential primary in Massachusetts: “State Senator William Bulger, a hero in South Boston,…said Mr. [George] Wallace ‘may well be the one we end up with’ because he was willing to ‘speak up loud and clear and offend those who have made themselves our enemies.’ ‘Anybody who isn’t called a racist in this campaign,’ said the quiet, diminutive Mr. Bulger, ‘isn’t doing his job.'” The virulence of that shocking remark suggests the tone and the import of the conflict in South Boston at the time. Yes, “Black Mass” is about gangsters, and William Bulger plays merely a supporting role, but not even mentioning the busing crisis in the course of the action would be akin to not mentioning the police assault on Rodney King and the resulting riots in Los Angeles in the course of “Straight Outta Compton.”

4. “Simpsons” Writer Mike Reiss on What Went Wrong with “National Lampoon.” 
There’s a new documentary coming out entitled “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” directed by Douglas Tirola about the “National Lampoon” and its indelible effect on modern comedy from everything from Spinal Tap to “The Simpsons.” Legendary “Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss briefly worked on the “Lampoon” during a turbulent time in the magazine’s history, and then eventually moved to Hollywood for bigger and better things. Esquire’s Matt Patches interviews Reiss on what exactly went wrong with the “Lampoon.”

Q: When you segued to television and joined the “Simpsons” team, did you have to shake off the “Lampoon’s” sick-humored sensibilities?

A: An amazing thing that happened just the other night: I went to the premiere of this documentary, and older people in the audience were loving it. The film shows you great jokes from the magazine. And I saw a lot of young hipsters from the Village very uncomfortable with it because it is not PC. This was the first time I was face-to-face seeing political correctness in action. The older people are hipper and more liberal than young people today.

Q: Did “The Simpsons” run into that problem? 

A: Nobody remembers that when “The Simpsons” came on the air, it was considered the most shocking thing on television. The first President George Bush came out and attacked the show. His wife called it the stupidest thing she had ever seen in her life. We were condemned by the National Council of Churches. Schools banned “Simpsons” t-shirts. The show has not changed at all, and yet now it’s considered sort of the benign part of American culture. We had the church and the U.S. government against us when we came on the air!

5. Stephen Colbert’s New Civility on Late Night. 
Stephen Colbert is still chugging along with his new Late Night show wracking up headlines interviewing GOP candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Yet the way he’s interviewed them feels remarkably different than other late show guests, and even his earlier incarnation on “The Colbert Report.” Bloomberg’s Will Leitch explores Colbert’s new civility on his “Late Show.”

Colbert wasn’t as chummy and borderline-fawning the way that Jimmy Fallon was when Trump was on “The Tonight Show” last week (Fallon’s show is becoming so all-denominations-welcome-even/especially-the-lowest-common-one that it’s nearly content-free at this point; he is morphing into Jay Leno before our very eyes) but Colbert wasn’t an attack dog either. He had fun with Trump (how could you not?), but also showed him something that resembled respect — which turns out to be a core value of Colbert’s new show. It’s about sharp satiric wit and performative exuberance, but it’s also about civility. And for a night, Trump embraced this. With Colbert, Trump actually seemed civil — an impressive accomplishment. As Politico pointed out, Trump was subdued, but it wasn’t because he was cowed, or just tired. (Trump is usually only subdued when he’s tired.) He just didn’t quite seem to know what to do with Colbert, and therefore defaulted into simply being a person. Trump is usually attacking, or is self-consciously absurd, but with Colbert, who tried to engage him as a human, Trump the political performer seemed to recede, something one would imagine impossible. And it sort of worked. Trump didn’t come across as normal exactly, but there were brief moments — particularly when he meta-commented on his persona, telling Colbert he “works hard at it.” Trump also proved, not surprisingly, to be brilliant at one aspect of public policy: Donald Trump Trivia. Not only was he unfailingly able to choose which statements he’d said in the past and which had been said by Colbert’s old character, he even knew not to attribute the trick question, actually said by Charles Manson, to himself. In the wake of this cordial, almost casual interview, some liberal critics, used to the old Colbert, have claimed Colbert took it too easy on Trump. (The “Daily Beast” called him “craven.”) But this is to miss the point of the new Colbert show. It is not about taking candidates down a few pegs, or to mock all those dumb dumb Republicans, Jon Stewart-style. It’s about attempting to find out who they really are by engaging with them on a human level. (On Colbert’s show, Cruz was as relatable as Cruz has ever come across.) It wasn’t Colbert vs. Trump last night. That’s not the game Colbert’s playing anymore. The new game is one he wants everyone to play. Even Trump.

6. The Story Behind “Black-ish’s” Provocative N-Word Episode. 
Though “Empire” premiered its second season last night on Fox and garnered quite a bit of attention for its soapy charms, another African American-led show premiered its second season as well. “Black-ish,” created by Kenya Barris and starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, focuses on the trials and tribulations of an upper-middle-class black family. Vulture’s Maria Elena Fernandez interviews Barris about his provocative N-word episode that kicked off its second season.

Q: Why did you decide to do an entire show about this word but we never hear it? In every instance, you bleeped it. 

A: It was an easier entry point. Hearing it is a little bit hard. The bleep in a weird way makes you hear it even louder. But it still allows you to get into the drama and the comedy of the scene without making you feel ostracized. You’re still hearing it as loud, if not louder, than ever before. That was the biggest thing — not to have a barrier to the comedic entry point.

Q: It was impressive how you packed in all these points of view and how conflicted people are and how charged the issue is, depending on who you are. How hard was it to balance all of that since you’re doing a sitcom and don’t have a lot of time?

A: We really wanted to make it like a documentary — a moment in a family’s life that would just start a conversation. That’s what we try to do for the show in general — just start a conversation. In a Norman Lear–esque kind of way, we try to show the different points of views on different topics because that’s what a family is. I have five kids, and people can say nature versus nurture. But it is nature! Nurture has so little to do with it. I have five kids and there are five totally different people in my house. Whenever you put a family together they may share some points of views and morals, but there are going to be differences. The other thing you get from your family is how you deal with other people’s point of view. That’s the learned behavior — how you allow yourself to exit a conversation differently from when you enter it.

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