The Sad State of Black Cinema

We can’t fix #OscarsSoWhite until we get a better variety of movies about us.

Kevin Hart in Ride Along 2
Kevin Hart in Ride Along 2 Universal

I’ve long been of two minds about Kevin Hart.  

On the one hand, I appreciate that he’s a seemingly bonhomous young brother who’s built an empire for himself by selling out shows and racking up receipts at the box office. There’s little more gratifying than a black man starting from the bottom (the actual bottom, Drake) and making power moves, especially if you get the feeling that he’s good people.

On the other hand, as a funny man, Hart is painfully inconsistent. Sometimes his standup makes me laugh. Sometimes his movies are funny. For as much as he talks about his plans for world domination, he doesn’t seem to have changed up much of his core shtick after about seven years into his career: that of the bug-eyed, excitable capuchin monkey who’s always being wronged.

He’s just been Kevin F–king Hart in everything—not nearly as versatile in movies as Eddie Murphy and not nearly as funny onstage as Chris Rock.

This piece is not about Hart, but it was inspired by Ride Along 2. I never watched its predecessor in its entirety, but I had the occasion to pay actual money for and watch the sequel in the theater (I don’t wanna talk about it). I quickly deduced that the second film is the exact same s–t as the first—plot, buddy-cop dynamic and so forth.

In January, Ride Along 2 became the first film to dethrone Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ No. 1 spot at the box office, with a respectable $41.5 million opening that exceeded Universal’s projections and will likely result in us being beat over the head with an eventual Ride Along 3.

The mainstream black-film recipe is frustratingly simple: a generous dollop of a plucky, successful Taraji P. Henson type; a tablespoon of Michael Ealy (aka Pretty Yellow N–ga); a clueless white foil to taste; literally, the exact same script; and just a dash of a shamelessly beweaved Instagram model paid the industry minimum to look pretty and deliver, like, one terrible line. Bake at 350 degrees for nearly two hours. Don’t bother turning.

Obviously, mainstream black films are certainly not the only ones to suffer from formulaic repetition (see: Will Ferrell, aka the white Kevin Hart). Unfortunately, despite making significant strides in Hollywood in recent years, we still don’t have the benefit of variety in the movies about us or in which we play leading roles. And that’s not entirely our fault.

(For the purposes of this piece, a “black” film is one with a primarily black cast and black director. Will Smith- and Denzel Washington-helmed vehicles with nonblack directors, writers and love interests don’t count.)

Hollywood’s interminable unwillingness to use black leads in films or to green-light substantive black films is nearly a century-old, sustained issue that contributed to #OscarsSoWhite, which is shining a light on the lack of representation in the industry’s most important awards show for the second year in a row. My biggest personal beef this year is the Idris Elba snub for Beasts of No Nation; Creed and Straight Outta Compton were both good, but not Oscar-worthy.

If Hollywood seeks a leading man, and a dude named Ryan or Chris with washboard abs and “dreamy” eyes has a clear schedule, chances are that the relatively untested black actor will fall even farther down the ladder, if he’s considered at all. Smith and Washington are aging, and it doesn’t seem like anyone outside of Michael B. Jordan is being groomed for the bankable, versatile black male superstar role. (I’m simply not counting Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s and Vin Diesel’s ethnically ambiguous asses. Sue me.)

Oddly enough, some of the hottest, most talented black actors right now—Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, even the little homie John Boyega from The Force Awakens—are Brits. I’ve no problem with that, but none of them are household names just yet, unlike some of their white male counterparts, who’ve been grinding for a lot less time.