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.
But that dearth of Oscar-worthy black films is not strictly racist white Hollywood’s fault. There’s a reason there have been 1,294 Fast & Furious films and counting: At the end of the day, the films that fill seats and line studio executives’ pockets are the ones that get the green light. This is why Tyler Perry has been so successful.
For all the box-office gains Perry has attained by tapping into a previously untapped demographic (black Christian women), you can set a watch to damn near all of his films: over-the-top antagonists perpetuating the worst black male stereotypes; drug-addled or knocked-up black women in “need” of the saintly male protagonist who’s essentially a Jesus stand-in; and a church scene in the final act that rights every wrong through the power of praise.
Perry deserves props for giving work to black actors who might have struggled to find it elsewhere, including Elba and Viola “You is kind. You is smaht. You is im-po-tant” Davis. But it’s hard to appreciate him for jamming Madea down your throat for the 18th time and serving as a progenitor for knock-off material like Jumping the Broom, which is interesting only because of a scene of Paula Patton in her panties.
While quality black films are certainly more prominent now than they were a decade ago during Perry’s ascendancy, it seems as if they still need to fit tidily into a handful of prosaic categories to get within spitting distance of Oscar or mainstream acclaim. We’re talking American slavery (12 Years a Slave), the civil rights movement (Selma, The Butler), and fictional or nonfictional depictions of black folks enduring very bad s—t thanks to contemporary socioeconomic conditions (Fruitvale Station, Precious).
Give me a black Sideways. A black Birdman. Hell, give me a Bill Bellamy-free Love Jones with a stellar script and some amazing acting. Give me some solid black flicks like Pariah and Dope, and Emeril Lagasse those hos up a notch so they can justifiably merit that stupid T-1000 statue.
Lest you continue dragging me with the get-off-my-lawn rep I’ve built, I can absolutely acknowledge that, much like Future records, Empire (the show that acting and singing forgot) and Real Hip-Hop Housewives for the Love of Joe Budden, paper-thin flicks have their role. No one wants to watch House of Sand and Fog on a Netflix-and-get-it-in night, and I’d be a goddamned liar if I said I didn’t actually sit through House Party 4 or enjoy the occasional 1990s direct-to-video No Limit movie featuring Master P attempting to recite lines he “memorized.”
But again, the quality disparity is pronounced … so what’s the answer, Sway? Having Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, spearhead the development of a more diverse academy is a good start. Since so many filmmakers have Oscar in their crosshairs, perhaps that will encourage more interesting and daring films made by and starring women and underrepresented minorities.
I’m looking forward to more Oscar-worthy black movies that don’t feature us in iron shackles or that aren’t biopics of dead, troubled entertainers. And I’m looking forward to legitimate wins, not capitulation from the academy, à la the 2002 Oscars, during which Halle Berry won for that overrated train wreck Monster’s Ball and Denzel Washington got his bone for Training Day after getting s—t on with snubs for Malcolm X and The Hurricane.
Sure, representation in Hollywood is far from the most pressing issue facing the race these days. But as a huge movie fan, I hope things improve. Meanwhile, Kevin Hart had better really step outside of himself and do something remotely interesting before I even think of spending another penny on his movies.
Dustin J. Seibert lifts heavyweights and plays all his video games on hard mode to find peace. He has a better ear for hip-hop than anyone else you know. You can find more of his work at VerySmartBrothas.com.