Perhaps you’ve heard the latest dust-up about the upcoming 2-part HBO documentary on Tiger Woods. Jigsaw Productions, well-known documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney’s company, has gotten loudly called out for tapping two respected filmmakers – Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek – two white guys, to tell this story about Tiger Woods who is of Thai and African-American heritage.
As filmmaker Stanley Nelson pointed out in his Op-Ed for the LA Times, the film world remains a stubborn bastion of racist attitudes. And so, within the safe harbor of the white, male film culture, well before this summer, Gibney gave the project to two white guys who, by rights, have proven their skills as filmmakers without considering the large stable of similarly-talented BIPOC filmmakers.
And why is that? First off, Heineman and Hamachek, directing/producing/editing partners on documentary and narrative projects such as the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land,” (a MUST-watch, in my book), “City of Ghosts,” “A Private War” and other incredible films are an easy go-to when one wants to be assured of a top drawer product. That is not in doubt. But what no amount of skill can do, however, in a medium that Roger Ebert called an “empathy machine” is understand the point of view of a man whose racial and ethnic background is non-white. So while some may feel this outcry is film’s equivalent of a call for affirmative action, the real issue is that a filmmaker with Black and/or Thai heritage will inherently see and understand in Tiger what no white person would see, much less comprehend, at the emotional level filmmakers need to tell truly good stories. THAT is the reason Gibney, Heineman and Hamachek are rightfully being called out.
I have to admit that my first reaction to any Matt Heineman project is excitement because he is really, really good. When I saw “Escape Fire: The Race to Rescue American Healthcare” (yeah, the name needed some work) at Sundance 2012, I knew I had to program the film for Heartland Film Festival, where I was Documentary Programmer at the time. I made my way through the post-film throng and thrust my card in his hand…his film was an award finalist, he grudgingly came to our festival in flyover country and had such a good time that he changed his flight out to stay a few more days. I mark those post-film Q&As as some of the best I’ve moderated because the film so thoughtfully explored the issues plaguing our health care system. A few years later, I found myself standing next to Matt’s father while in line at Sundance to see “Cartel Land” and got the scoop on how Matt’s mom handled Matt getting into the thick of danger while filming…..and that it was his dad who suggested the project in the first place. And he continued getting into danger (and finding other mini-Matts to join him) while shooting the Showtime series “The Trade.”
So yes, he’s good and it’s deeply unfortunate that the white male filmmaking culture thought no further than that. It’s a loss for equity and a loss for how much better the film could have been had a filmmaker of color been selected. I count myself among the unwittingly clueless people who initially gave no thought to the selection of Heineman and Hamachek. Change will only come when we all examine our own implicit bias and both recognize and call it out in situations such as this. I applaud the voices who spoke up.
I hope you will join me on Friday, July 30 for a conversation hosted by Firelight Media called After the Call Out. Part of Firelight’s Beyond Resilience series, female filmmakers of color will discuss the path towards equity, equality and racial justice in the documentary field. I know two of these dynamic, thoughtful and talented women. Marjan Safinia in particular mentored me, a producer on a project with a female POC, how to persist through the bias in contracts and financing and fiercely guard against the loss of creative control, a problem that particularly plagues women of color. I urge you to join me for these women’s perspectives and thoughts on yet another missed opportunity to give a high-profile project to a BIPOC filmmaker who has more than earned their turn…and who finds themself still waiting.
**If you missed the conversation, click here to access a recording of it. Highly recommend!**
Learn more and register for Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience Series Event : After the Call Out – Towards Equity, Equality, and Racial Justice below!