I’m not a person who tends to have a censorious attitude toward stand-up comedians. One of their jobs is to give voice to the audacious, the outrageous, the rudely incorrect. If we looked back, in hindsight, and vetted comic artists from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor to George Carlin to Sandra Bernhard to Eddie Murphy about whether everything they said was “appropriate” or not, probably very few of them would be left standing.
Yet Kevin Hart’s comic tweets about the LGBTQ community, which basically consist of the aggressive flaunting of a lot of dumb and angry homophobic stereotypes (“Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay'”), can leave you with a slightly queasy feeling. Yes, most of the tweets date back seven or eight years. And no, it’s not as if Hart should be banned from stand-up comedy, or that we should now organize a boycott of “The Upside,” his upcoming buddy farce with Bryan Cranston. Yet Kevin Hart was not the right choice to host the 91st Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 24, 2019, and so it’s a good thing that he’s stepping down. Those tweets marked him as the wrong person — the wrong host — at the wrong time.
The Oscars are an awards show, but as much as that they’re a celebration of movies. And what, exactly, are movies about? This year, they’re about spectacular heroism and the liberation of new voices (“Black Panther”), they’re about love and heartbreak (“A Star Is Born”), they’re about feminist desperation and delicious conniving (“The Favourite”), they’re about the intersection of a time and a place and a family (“Roma”).
But what all great movies are about, on some level, is empathy. They have been, and still are, the supreme vehicle for putting ourselves in the shoes of people who aren’t us. To watch a great movie is to reduce that difference — between the people on screen, whoever they might be, and the people in the audience — to nothing. That, in a nutshell, is the miracle of movies. These days, it’s become all too easy to talk about “black films” or “women’s films” or “gay films” or films for wizened retirees from Miami. But the glory of cinema is that no movie is for any one person at the expense of anyone else. They are all for everyone. They’re not just about crossing boundaries — they’re about melting them down.
The trouble with Kevin Hart’s words— the reason that, by and large, they’re terrible jokes — is that they express a spirit of extreme anti-empathy. They’re not just “cheap gags.” They’re overtly hostile and parochial; they basically demonize LGBTQ identifying people as The Other. Hart, for a brief time today, tried to wriggle out from under the cloud of those jokes, an effort that boiled down to a two-pronged strategy of damage control: 1) delete the old tweets, and hope that somehow that makes them all go away; and 2) refuse to apologize — as he said in his Instagram video — by claiming that he has already apologized. He claimed that he’s not the man he was, and that he shouldn’t be judged by the yardstick of his younger, cruder comedy days.
Going forward, that message could conceivably be the taking-off point for a hipper, better, more grown-up — and funnier — Kevin Hart. Our culture should be open to it. But Hart’s last-minute scramble to defend himself by standing his ground, and to position himself as a more evolved comedian and a more evolved human being than he used to be, reeked of opportunism. Basically, he disowned his old tweets and, on some level, clung to them, too. For a while, he was basically saying, “I’m entitled to host the Oscars. So I’ll be damned if I’m going to grovel to get the gig.”
Some might argue that the high council of identity politics now demands too much. In this case, however, the real question was whether a comedian whose mocking reactionary spirit led him to write off a segment of our citizens in the most demeaning way possible was the person we wanted in 2019 to symbolize, on global television, the spirit of Hollywood. The main job of the Oscar host is to tweak a great many of the people in the audience — the royalty of the industry. They are not, and shouldn’t be, above satire, especially on Oscar night. But the essence of the satire is that it shouldn’t leave a sour aftertaste. The fact of Hart’s tweets, and his defensiveness about them, boils down to this: He’s someone who‘s still essentially on record as thinking of people who identify as LGBTQ as “those people.” And that couldn’t be further from the defiantly inclusive spirit of Hollywood today.
Hart’s spirit is, in fact, a bit Trumpian: superior and divisive, based on the falsity of exclusion. If he truly regrets his old tweets, then let him do a comedy routine about it, the way Richard Pryor — the greatest American comedian, and someone who also talked about evolving — declared, in “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip” (1982), that after visiting Africa he made the decision never to use the N-word again. I certainly believe that Kevin Hart can grow, and that if and when he does he should be invited to host the Oscars. But not now. It’s too soon. The last thing that anyone needed on Oscar night was to be laughing at the the host and wondering, in the back of one’s mind, whether the cutting edge of his jokes was really the sharp blade of intolerance.