I was set to dislike The Martian because of Matt Damon’s comments on diversity during the premiere episode of this season’s Project Greenlight on HBO. Damon actually interrupted the only black female producer in the room, Effie Brown, to educate her (or mansplaining as some critics are dubbing it) about diversity in filmmaking; and that diversity should be limited to what’s on the screen, not the show itself. A few weeks later, the actor went on to make statements about homosexual actors keeping their sexuality in the closet.
Given that Damon is suffering from foot-in-mouth disease, it’s easy for him to be one of the most disliked men in film right now. This dichotomy is odd, seeing as the marketing department for his latest film, Martian, has been promoting the film to young people, including people of color. They have been setting up events in HBCUs all over the country, using the presence of actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover for their campaigns.
Damon would like for the audience to think that the only way to show diversity in filmmaking is to have one or two token blacks in a role in a film in front of the camera. It doesn’t matter if that role is as a protagonist or an antagonist; as long as there is a diverse person on screen. This is not enough. What Damon has failed to realize is that having a diverse crew means that the diverse people represented in front of the camera are depicted with accuracy and dignity. This was the point Brown was attempting to make before Damon decided to wax poetically on a subject he obviously didn’t know much about.
Damon’s recent faux paus, notwithstanding, he did manage to be a part of a film that is actually pretty good. In The Martian, Damon plays Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars after his crew, thinking him dead, abandoned him. Most of the film is about Mark’s fight for survival until help can arrive four years later.
Written by Drew Goddard (based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir), The Martian guides its audience down a road less-travelled where a man has to rely on his knowledge of botany to grow potatoes on a planet where nothing can grow and his wit to keep his spirits up. It’s a nicely poignant film that causes the audience to think about things we take for granted.
Directed by Ridley Scott, the film juxtaposes Mark’s year and a half ordeal as the only living being on an entire planet with the efforts of NASA on earth to bring him home. This informs the pacing of the film to make it flow better. It also gives a glimpse of how public relations personnel, while well-meaning, can make a bad situation worse. This is embodied by Kristen Wiig’s Annie Montrose, who is the head of public relations for NASA.
Annie is just trying to get the best story out to the media so as not to make NASA look bad. After all, one of its astronauts was stranded on the lonely planet. Likewise, we see some great diversity in the form of Jessica Chastain’s Captain Melissa Lewis who takes the blame for abandoning Mark at a critical time when his abandonment meant the survival of her crew.
We also see the diversity in the heroes who devise the plan for Mark’s rescue mission. Ejiofor’s Vincent Kapoor, the commander of the Mars mission, figures out a way to communicate with Mark and to reassure him in his darkest hour. Lastly, Glover’s Rich Purnell gives NASA the best and brightest idea on how to go about getting needed rations to Mark until help can arrive.
It’s so odd to think that Damon would say what he did about diversity when it is such an integral part to his latest film. However, it is not fair to punish the film because of its star’s myopic judgment (representative, unfortunately, of the rampant small-mindedness in Hollywood’s decision-making circles). The Martian is a good film and a delight for the whole family; replete with a diverse cast, despite what Damon considers diversity.