Effie Brown is in her office in Los Angeles and a bit jet lagged. The film and television producer just returned from the Sundance Film Festival: London, a three-day satellite expansion of the famed Park City, Utah, cinematic institution. Nevertheless, there is a vigor and buoyancy in her voice that, as she talks about her work in Hollywood, reveals passion and intensity. She loves what she does. And she cherishes the possibilities that exist within film and television to create art and effect change. Her resume, which includes such films as Real Women Have Curves, Dear White People, and But I’m a Cheerleader, reveals the thunderbolt she is to a creative world that still very much limits and restricts who gets to tell their story and how.
In this presidential election year overwhelmed with talk about busting up the political establishment in Washington, some feel it’s 1968 all over again. The same can be said for Hollywood as in the late 1960s that industry saw a sea change in the stories it told in response to an anti-establishment movement from both internal and external forces. Consider how powerful the American film and television industry is. With the vast majority of media consumed worldwide produced by this industry in which the diversity of who gets to tell those stories lags far behind even the makeup of our federal government, there is a problem. Representation matters. And Brown is a major force shaking up the Hollywood establishment, something she’ll touch upon as the keynote speaker at the Evan Lawson Brunch at this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival.
“I like to do films about the outsider, the other,” says Brown. “Not a movie that is a preachy soapbox, but ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That’s why one of my favorites is But I’m A Cheerleader. It educated as it entertained. “
Brown’s appearance at the film festival is for a fundraiser for the Gabrielle A. Hanna Provincetown Film Institute, which, along with the Provincetown Film Society, sponsors a women filmmaker’s residency program. Currently only 16% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, cinematographers, and editors in Hollywood are women, according to the film society’s CEO Christine Walker. That percentage shrinks to an even smaller number when counting women of color in those roles. While producers may not be as well known to the general public as directors and of course actors, Brown was thrust into the public consciousness as a cast member of HBO’s Project Greenlight, when during a discussion with Matt Damon about diversity in hiring for all aspects of a project he said, “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”
To that cultural flashpoint moment Brown responded, “Wow” with both a tone and expression of disbelief. And it also reflected her own experience where the importance of diversity is either glossed over or completely dismissed. But there is also the double standards: rules or expectations that only apply to women or people of color, that in the film and television world, with its high pressure and high stakes energy, seem all the more apparent. Brown prides herself on completing compelling projects on time and on budget. But along the way she’s learned that she’s expected to be nice and to make people feel good, too—something not asked of her male colleagues.
“I haven’t been nice, I’ve been effective,” says Brown.
She certainly has and continues to be. And while her films have been in a variety of genres with varying budgets, she wants to take things to the next level, she says, by producing big budget action adventure, thrillers and horror, as well as science fiction movies. In the process of filming those genres, she’ll maintain her commitment to diversity and a non-conformist ethos. As a producer she’s intimately involved with each film from start to finish. And while there are some exceptions, diversity in these types of films can be rare or stereotypical, something Brown wants to change. Getting the kinds of films she wants to make can be an added challenge, but one in which she is charting a successful course.
“It can be hard,” says Brown. “It’s hard, but you go where the love is. There are so many people that need content that looks like them.”
The push from society at large for greater diversity in Hollywood gained traction through social media with the #OscarSoWhite movement criticizing the lack of African Americans nominated for Academy Awards. Does this kind of hashtag activism resonate and is it effective? Absolutely, says Brown. Black Twitter, a community of black Twitter users who discuss issues of race, is a vibrant form of communication and debate, says Brown, that of course not only tackles representation in Hollywood, but issues like unequal treatment by law enforcement with #BlackLivesMatters and racism within feminism with #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. Movements to expand diversity are organizing quickly across all communities with one of the most recent focused on the frequency with which white actors are cast in roles in which the character in the source material is Asian, with the Twitter handle #whitewashing.
“I think it’s sort of bizarre that changes are made to replace Asian actors with white actors,” says Brown. “I don’t think it’s malicious. They just don’t think about it, which I think is worse.”
LGBT actors and filmmakers can face the same restrictions, says Brown, who notes that even with recent advancement in LGBT equality, she still does not see a lot of “out” actors. And those she does see are often offered roles that pertain to their sexuality. Diversity in all aspects of filmmaking can create an art form that accurately reflects all of us regardless of the genre of film, something that is vitally important in an industry with such huge influence and reach, says Brown.
“We have to lock arms and walk together,” says Brown. “There’s room for all of us. I’ll say it again and again and again. There’s room for all of us.”
Effie Brown will be the keynote speaker at the Evan Lawson Filmmaker Brunch at the Provincetown International Film Festival on Sunday, June 19 at 11 a.m. at Sage Inn and Lounge, 336 Commercial St., Provincetown. For tickets ($250) and information for this fundraiser go to the film festival box office at Whaler’s Wharf, 237 Commercial St., 1st fl., oceanside, call 508.487.3456, or visit ptownfilmfest.com.