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Is Brad Pitt the wokest white man in Hollywood?

How Brad Pitt’s production company is making marquee movies by and about black folks

Folks, this isn’t fun. Just two years ago, after director Steve McQueen’s hauntingly beautiful masterpiece 12 Years a Slave won best picture at the Oscars, many hoped it would mark the start of continued and lasting change in the film business.

Then came two years of #OscarsSoWhite.

Discussions about meaningful diversity in Hollywood and how to achieve it have reached an impasse. News media and online masses continue to criticize the film industry for continuing to specialize in telling stories by and about white guys and catering disproportionately to the whims of teenage boys. Meanwhile, the Big Six (that would be film studios 20th Century Fox, Columbia, Disney, Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros., not these guys) and their subsidiaries keep soldiering through public-relations disasters that implicate their institutional sclerosis. See: Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, Aloha, Pan, Gods of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings, as the latest examples. Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange have yet to be released. But the others were box-office flops. With few exceptions, instead of making changes, the movie industry, and by extension, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has responded with a mix of reflexive defensiveness, contempt and recalcitrance.

Hollywood’s ruling class could absolutely do with a shake-up to rid it of the homogeneity that plagues its ranks. As producer Effie Brown would say, we are well overdue for a cinematic landscape that “looks like America,” but, in the words of abolitionist Harriet Tubman via actress Viola Davis, we “can’t seem to get there no how.” In 2015, while promoting the weirdly entertaining, if polarizing, Chi-Raq, director Spike Lee proposed a Rooney Rule for Hollywood, citing the absence of black executives with green-light power, as a way to curb diversity blunders (disclosure: ESPN and The Undefeated are the home of Spike Lee’s Lil’ Joints). It’s a vital but incomplete solution. Lee’s argument absolves currently employed white executives, unlikely to be fired anytime soon, from responsibility to make their films reflect the fast-changing demographics of the country. It does nothing to hold them accountable for the current sorry state of affairs, continually documented in annual diversity studies from the University of Southern California and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, not to mention internal studies from the Writers Guild and Directors Guild of America. Surely, there’s something else to be done.

And there is. There’s an outfit run by three rich white folks that has proven it. In three years, Plan B, the production company run by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, has gone from an eclectic studio offering up an array of really white, if mostly decent films (Running with Scissors, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Kick-Ass) to a company that has produced a slate of profitable, award-winning marquee properties by and about people of color.

This is not to diminish the efforts of Lee Daniels, Will Packer, Oprah Winfrey, Reggie Hudlin, Nate Moore, Lee and other black Hollywood power brokers, but their labor and money alone is not enough to effect the sort of change that would move the needle on years-long stagnating diversity numbers. Otherwise, the revolution would already be here. It is to say this, however: White Hollywood, get it together. There’s no excuse for this.

The big studios thrive on exhaustively duplicating successful ideas, which explains the glut of vampire and werewolf-themed properties following the mania over Twilight. It explains the ubiquity of zombies, and the existence of the Divergent franchise following the runaway numbers of the Hunger Games movies. It’s the reason we now have two massive competing cinematic universes based on comic book series.

Not only does Plan B consistently put forth films by and about people of color, it hasn’t lost its shirt in the process. It picks winners, it makes money, and judging from its future projects, it’s going to keep doing it. Maybe the Big Six should be copying it.

The high point in Plan B’s history, of course, is when it won best picture for 12 Years a Slave and the film made history as the first work by a black director to claim the honor. The following year, its poignant civil rights heavy-hitter Selma, co-produced with Winfrey, dominated awards-season conversations, especially after both director Ava DuVernay and star actor David Oyelowo found themselves on the receiving end of Oscar snubs.

Now there’s already anticipation building for Moonlight, the sophomore effort from writer-director and Miami native Barry Jenkins. Moonlight, a coming-of-age drama set in Miami during the drug wars of the 1980s and ’90s, is based on the Tarell McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Scheduled for release later this year, it stars André Holland, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris. A24, the indie distributor behind last year’s Ex Machina and the recent The Lobster, is financing and distributing the project. Plan B is co-producing.

This undated file image released by Fox Searchlight, Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Solomon Northup in a scene from "12 Years A Slave." From "12 Years a Slave" to "The Butler" to "Fruitvale Station," 2013 has been a banner year for movies directed by black filmmakers.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup in a scene from 12 Years A Slave.

AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Films, Jaap Buitendijk

Jenkins, a former employee of Harpo Productions, made his feature debut in 2008 with the terrific Medicine for Melancholy, a contemplative, desaturated exploration of romantic and racial ennui that starred Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins. Jenkins is also set to adapt the soulful, wildly ambitious Atticus Lish novel Preparation for the Next Life with Plan B and HBO.

The vibrant, undeniable force that stands today is vastly different from the Plan B that began as a partnership between Pitt and his then-wife Jennifer Aniston and Brad Grey at Warner Bros. in 2001. The company was still in its infancy when it netted its first credit on Troy (2004), followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and The Departed (2006). There was no obvious creative through line and when Pitt and Aniston split in 2005, Aniston walked away from the company. When Grey became head of Paramount in 2005, Plan B followed.

Pitt and Aniston had met Gardner, the daughter of an investment banker and a nonprofit executive from Winnetka, Illinois, when they were interviewing candidates to run Plan B. Gardner, 48, had a literary background at William Morris Agency. A graduate of Columbia University, she’d spent her postgraduate years working on films in the art department or as a location manager.

“I knew [Pitt] was a kindred spirit when we talked about the company and we had a lot of crossover with our ideas: wanting it to be a safe harbor for filmmakers, a place where people might come where the energy and the protection felt singular. He also is a cinephile, so it’s a treat to work with him,” Gardner told Anne Thompson while promoting 12 Years a Slave. “He also really believes in the shelf life of a movie, which is to say he doesn’t put a lot of stake in opening weekends. He believes movies are found over a long period of time. He said to me one year after we made Jesse James and A Mighty Heart, ‘I couldn’t be prouder and those movies will find their place and their time.’ ”

Pitt and Gardner ran Plan B together and they promoted Kleiner, who joined as a creative executive in 2003, to co-president in 2013. In December 2013, Plan B’s contractual partnership with Paramount was set to expire and the company struck a three-year deal with New Regency (which co-financed 12 Years a Slave), and Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment financing company. The deal punctuated a shift. An operation that had been dedicated to making a mix of starring vehicles for Pitt (including the bloated 2013 World War Z), and off-the-beaten-path films broadened its spectrum of offerings to include people of color, both onscreen and behind the camera.

The current Hollywood climate is one characterized by risk aversion and a widespread allergy to imagination. Yet Plan B landed on the Hollywood Reporter’s 2015 list of the town’s 30 most powerful film producers by doubling down on original voices and unexpected stories, earning it the label of “one of the most daring outfits around.”

Plan B doesn’t just want to work with minority filmmakers. Pitt, Kleiner and Gardner are interested in backing work that’s groundbreaking and exceptional, and once they find talent they like, they tend to return to the same wells. It’s not that Plan B has some secret, special sauce squirreled away in a vault in the studio’s Wilshire Boulevard offices. The company’s modus operandi seems to be:

  1. Find people of color, usually in the indie world, whose talents might otherwise be overlooked or underappreciated.
  2. Facilitate and provide giant platforms for those talents to shine.
  3. Repeat.

Think of it this way: Pitt and Plan B are John Stockton. The filmmakers and actors of color with whom they work are Karl Malone. Pitt leverages his star power, access and reputation to get you the ball, and then he gets the hell out of the way. In a perfect world, one in which people of color had the same access to the resources that Plan B enjoys, there would be no need for a Stockton figure at all. Alas, that world, as it currently stands, is about as real as Negrotown.

In the film industry, the ball comes in the form of access to capital and distribution, the requisite support to make a film successful in the form of press and advertising, and when appropriate, awards-season campaigning.

As a producer, Pitt understands the weaknesses and biases of the star system and has thrown his power behind countering, if not outright rejecting it. This is especially crucial in disproving the canard that there aren’t more films starring people of color because people of color aren’t capital-M, capital-S Movie Stars, who can guarantee butts in seats.

So, how do you become an A-List Movie Star if you’re never offered Movie Star roles? You need producers and financiers like Pitt to take a chance on you and to believe in you. And overwhelmingly, the people holding those purse strings are white. (Thanks generational wealth predicated on a bedrock of structural racism! You really are everywhere, all the time.) Before 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor, 38, was an actor whose face you knew from something — he’s the guy from Love Actually! And Salt! And Amistad! And American Gangster! — but you’d probably have to scroll through his IMDb page to figure out which supporting role it was. But Ejiofor so utterly embodied his 12 Years a Slave character Solomon Northrup that it’s difficult to envision anyone else in the role. The movie made the case that he’s absolutely a leading man. But according to Ejiofor, that probably would not have happened had Pitt not agreed to be in the film.

“You know, without him, there wouldn’t be a film,” Ejiofor told Vulture’s Jada Yuan in 2013. “He was just so instrumental in making this film happen. He’s such a champion of filmmakers and the things that he believes in and can put his weight behind. … I don’t know what the full machinations are, but I imagine that him being around and lending that kind of support and weight to something is very freeing for [financiers]. They think, ‘OK, well, we can give the director some latitude.’ ”

Ejiofor is slated to star in a future Plan B property, Marching Powder. The film, based on the book by Rusty Young, tells the tale of British drug smuggler Thomas McFadden’s unexpectedly strange experience during a six-year sentence in a Bolivian prison beset by corruption. Plan B, like many operations, consistently mines the indie world for up-and-coming actors and directors. That’s essentially what Universal did with Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow, who leaped directly to the big leagues after making a splash at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival with his charming debut comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. The difference is that Plan B actually works with people of color. It takes so-called risks on relative unknowns, something the rest of the film industry, including the indie world, has been loath to do with nonwhite talent.

“The independent finance world is pretty, pretty bad,” Dear White People director Justin Simien recently told IndieWire. “That’s where ‘films don’t travel’ bulls— [comes from] — it really has its roots in the minds of the financier, the obsession with the ‘bankable’ diverse star. Which is sad, because [the independent world] is where the people who are on the outside of the industry have to make their films. We can’t make our first films in a studio. It doesn’t really happen anymore.”

The result of Plan B doing what few of its counterparts will has been that its films have become a reliable place to see promising nonwhite faces who face a harder climb up the mainstream food chain. This extends to Plan B productions built around white protagonists such as The Big Short and the upcoming War Machine.

Some of the credit for this goes to casting director Francine Maisler, who convinced McQueen to hire actress Lupita Nyong’o after she saw her perform at a Los Angeles acting showcase when Nyong’o was fresh out of Yale School of Drama. Maisler then created an audition tape and sent it to McQueen, already on location in Louisiana. Maisler worked on 2015 best picture contender The Big Short, where she cast Adepero Oduye as a manager at a Wall Street investment bank. Oduye turned in a powerful, heart-wrenching performance in 12 Years a Slave as Eliza, the woman who is inconsolable after her child is ripped away from her at the auction block. And Maisler is responsible for casting Pitt’s upcoming military satire War Machine, which features Keith Stanfield (Straight Outta Compton, Short Term 12, Selma, Miles Ahead) and R.J. Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl).

“If I can change somebody’s life who may have never gotten a chance otherwise, that is the most exciting part of my job,” Maisler told the Los Angeles Times in 2013.

Because of its industry cachet, Plan B makes it possible for existing talent to be seen and recognized by many more eyeballs and therefore becomes a valuable career stepping-stone for people such as Stanfield, Nyong’o, Jenkins and the still-criminally underused Oduye.

The impact of working on one Plan B film has paid dividends for Oyelowo, though we can lay just as much credit for his ascendance at the feet of DuVernay. The two have both benefited from a fruitful creative partnership, and it was Oyelowo who lobbied producers to hire DuVernay to direct Selma. Still, in 2014, Oyelowo signed on to co-star with Nyong’o in the film adaptation of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel Americanah, which Plan B has optioned and is producing. The same year, his chops shone in the HBO film Nightingale, which also bears the Plan B stamp. This year, Nyong’o and Oyelowo are co-starring in a Disney property, Queen of Katwe, which opens in September. And for Nyong’o, this comes after roles in Jungle Book and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (full disclosure: Disney owns ESPN, and therefore The Undefeated).

When DuVernay made Selma for $20 million, it was the biggest film, in terms of budget and profile, of her career. And now? The woman is directing a major adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, also for Disney. DuVernay is so busy she just had to back out of the sci-fi thriller Intelligent Life, which Nyong’o is toplining, by the way. A freakin’ Barbie doll has been created in her image.

But what’s just as important as the fact that Plan B is providing a springboard for black talent to make the jump from indie obscurity is the mix of the stories in which it’s invested. Americanah, if done well, has the potential to be a moving, smart romantic drama that encompasses identity and immigration. Moonlight offers an important and rarely seen exploration of black gay sexuality.

As an actor, Pitt, 52, has been one of the biggest modern beneficiaries of the Hollywood star system. As writer Lucy Kaylin characterized his ascendance in 2005: he’s enjoyed “an all-star’s easy lope from obscurity to fame.”

Geena Davis and Brad Pitt share a sex scene in the film 'Thelma And Louise', 1991.

Geena Davis and Brad Pitt in the film Thelma And Louise in 1991.

Fotos International/Getty Images

He swaggered into the national consciousness as the larcenous, Stetson-tipping ladykiller in 1991’s Thelma and Louise and rose to the ranks of heartthrob thanks to turns in 1994’s Legends of the Fall and 1998’s Meet Joe Black. He’s the wisecracking wingman to George Clooney’s Danny Ocean and boasts films with David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), Guy Ritchie (Snatch) and the Coen brothers (Burn After Reading).

He married quintessential girl-next-door Aniston in 2000. And then there was that famously bro-y quote that landed in GQ, from an interview with Kaylin that took place just days after Aniston filed for divorce in 2005:

Amid the chirps and tweets and the late-day sun squeezing hard through the branches, we small talk down the path — me telling him about a funny call I just got from my kid, which reminds him of a phone message he just got from his mom: “I’m disappointed in you, I’m angry with you, but whatever you do I’ll always love you,” Pitt quotes her as saying, which he clearly enjoyed. “All my bitches are mad at me right now,” he says with a laugh, declining to elaborate.

No matter. He was forgiven soon enough. Of course he was. He’s Eddie Fisher in the aughts version of the Eddie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds-Liz Taylor Hollywood love triangle, except this time Rachel from Friends was Debbie and Lara Croft was Liz. And Eddie? Well, Eddie’s just lucky.

His partnership with Angelina Jolie following Mr. and Mrs. Smith further increased the public’s fascination with him, though that’s finally settled somewhat, more than a decade into their relationship and six Benetton kids later.

Still. Who wouldn’t take a meeting with this guy, the one who’s inspired one of the most idiosyncratic and hilariously specific artifacts of internet fandom?

Pitt is uniquely positioned to upend Hollywood convention precisely because of the position he enjoys in it. In his quest to do so, he’s helped by his stardom, his wealth, his marriage to Jolie, his straight, white maleness, and of course, that pretty face. Depressingly, a recent study by two University of Colorado professors found that while the perception of white men in the workplace remains unchanged when they advocate for diversity, women and nonwhites are actually seen as less competent and are judged more harshly for doing the same.

In 2004, Pitt was a guest on Oprah. Winfrey invited him to offer his thoughts on privilege.

Winfrey: “You have had these dashing good looks all of your life. Even when you were a little kid, even when you were a little boy, you were a dashing, good-looking little boy. Did you realize early on that dashing good looks worked in your favor?”

Pitt: “Well — serious question, yes? No, it’s true. You certainly see — I was quite aware of certain advantages and disadvantages. I saw doors opening — ”

Winfrey: “What would be the disadvantage?”

Pitt: “Hubris is the disadvantage. And not being tested properly. I was painfully aware of some doors opening where they didn’t for others and I would ask my mother. My mother would come to our rooms when we were little and talk us to sleep … and I remember asking her about this at a very young age, Why isn’t the world fair? Why is it not fair? And she said to me that it’s not, but this means that you have more responsibility. And it’s something that’s always rung in my head. … There’s the true answer.”

Pitt then immediately deflected by turning to face the audience and mentioning how inspiring he found a recent trip Winfrey had made to Africa. He reached over for a beat and took her hand. “That really inspired me,” he said, “and sent me down some paths along those lines.

Pitt seems to be drawing inspiration from his doppelgänger, Spy Game co-star and Sundance Film Festival founder, Robert Redford. Redford also directed Pitt in A River Runs Through It (1992). Both men parlayed early mainstream Hollywood success into creating specific, independent-minded lanes for themselves, and they’re both revered for doing it.

Like Redford, Pitt possesses a frankness and self-awareness that’s allowed him to sidestep the characterization of dilettante (that cringe-inducing attempt at an Austrian accent in Seven Years in Tibet notwithstanding), something that comes across even in his earliest interviews. Before his 1991 breakout role in Thelma and Louise, Pitt played Walker Lovejoy on a not-great Fox show called Glory Days. The promos for it were painfully earnest.

“Unfortunately, a lot of television to me is a fast-food fashion show and it’s because of money and time and I understand it has to be that way, but it gets kinda frustrating,” he said in an a 1990 interview with Entertainment Tonight, then 26 years old and still clearly unpolished.

The interviewer, who is off-camera, tees up an easy softy for Pitt to give the show some praise, noting how nice it is that Pitt has a “personal opinion”: “Maybe you’re quite proud then, to be involved in a show — ”

Pitt refused to take the bait.

“If it gets there, yeah,” he said. “That’s the plan. We’re not there yet.”

As he rose through the ranks to become a certified A-lister, Pitt maintained that no-bulls— sensibility. He seems to understand the off-putting nature of soliciting credit for something that should have been happening all along. The most profound example of this was at the 2014 Oscars, when 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture.

The best picture Oscar is awarded to a film’s producers. Pitt went up and, in 22 seconds, issued thanks on behalf of the production to the Academy and to Solomon Northrup. And then, true to form, he got the hell out of the way. He turned over the rest of the broadcast, and the last words of the night, to his director and fellow producer, whom he introduced as “the indomitable Mr. Steve McQueen.”

“There are a lot of people I need to thank, so I’ll just push on,” McQueen said, clearly overcome with emotion and stumbling through his words. “My wonderful cast and crew, Plan B … Brad Pitt — without him, this film would just not have been made.”

12 Years a Slave was a transformative film for Pitt and a testament to the power of what a brilliant piece of art can accomplish and the lasting effects it can have on its patrons.

“It’s why I got into film in the first place,” Pitt said in a TODAY show interview with Ann Curry. “It’s one of those few films that cuts to the base of our humanity. It’s not until I saw Solomon Northrup’s story that I fully, fully grasped the utter horror of losing your freedom or denying another their freedom, taking their freedom, splitting their family apart. It’s abhorrent.”

For all the effort Plan B has put forth in seeking quality stories about people of color and the actors and directors to bring them to life, the company is not particularly interested in shouting about it.

When I requested to speak to Pitt, Kleiner or Gardner about what drove the company’s pivot toward championing such stories, a Plan B representative called me from South Korea, where production was just beginning on Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho’s new film Okja (Plan B is co-producing with Netflix), to decline. These days, Pitt generally doesn’t talk to reporters unless he’s promoting a project. We didn’t feel like holding the story until press junkets for Moonlight or War Machine rolled around.

However, when Vanity Fair asked in 2015, as Plan B was in the depths of an Oscar campaign for Selma, Gardner had this to say:

“Everyone needs voices, you know. The fact that [white men] are such a singular source of people making the most popular form of entertainment — that makes zero sense. … If you care about history, which I think we do, then the bandwidth of story that is available to be told, and the bandwidth that is necessary to be thorough, just naturally encompasses people of all walks of life — all races, all cultures, all genders, all inclinations, all faiths. I think we come at it from that place.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.