The most revealing part of Kevin Hart’s new Netflix series is not his Oscar contrition, marital drama or struggles with ego — it’s the rare glimpse at the nail-biting business of celebrity crisis management.
The six-part documentary “Kevin Hart: Don’t F**k This Up” premiered last Friday, and offers access to the turbulent 2019 the top comic suffered (largely at his own hands). On the edges of his outsized personality, however, is a team of communications experts, producers and media executives walking tightropes as Hart makes bad problems worse.
Much speculation and deep reporting goes into uncovering emergency board meetings, panicked conference calls and the fraught business of crafting and pitching media strategies when Hollywood PR disasters hit. The moments are fantasized about in scripted shows, from the luxurious viper pit of “Succession” to the soapy playground of “Scandal.” The industry also loves to talk about crisis work gone wrong, or better yet, crisis work that derails and bursts into flames.
So rarely do we get a blow-by-blow like the one offered up willingly by Hart, an emotional triage patient who refuses his medicine over and over again. Here are some takeaways from the show’s sixth and final episode:
Honesty is brutal, even when listening is minimal.
The primary wound of the series surrounds the Academy Awards, when last year Hart stepped down as host after his past homophobic tweets were resurfaced. The comic seemed to meet criticism with a lack of contrition, and refused to learn more and speak out against the violence faced by LGBTQ youth.
Hart’s sticking point, and repeated downfall, was a feeling that he had already apologized for crass jokes — which included one about attacking his son for playing with a dollhouse — and refused to revisit the topic in the face of social media’s outrage culture.
Many businesses built around sole figures, especially top-earning celebrities, can treat leaders as messiahs. The employees of Hart’s HartBeat Productions and his PR and management teams have no such illusions.
“[What] the f— did you do last night?” Haley Hileman, a publicist who reps Hart and clients like Dwayne Johnson, Keegan Michael-Key and Kelly Clarkson, is seen venting. This comes after Hart posts a defiant Instagram video dismissing the concerns over his old tweets.
“The public perception was that he did not want to apologize, therefore he is homophobic,” she reasons in a scene with HartBeat brand manager Wayne Brown. Her client follows up his video post with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, which results in a collective eye roll from staff.
“I think everybody saw the Martin Luther King quote he tweeted out last night. That was the wrong move, you are not Martin Luther King. You need to learn how to stop and think,” she adds.
Mind you, none of these conversations are had directly with Hart (who can hear them now), but the opinion inside the company is clear — he needs to stop. But Hart presses on. On a global arena tour with his stand-up act, he asks to schedule an emergency recording of “Straight From the Hart,” his Sirius XM radio show. The team conspires with numerous other parties to tell Hart the production can’t come together quickly enough, saving him from himself.
“There’s not going to be something else that takes the wind out of these sails right now. He’s got to be okay living in this world that he’s not used to living in,” Hileman says. “He needs to just shut up and put his head down in the next few weeks, and that does not include doing a radio show.”
Brown, deadpanning to camera, says: “If you tell him it’s not going to happen, the defiant one is going to make it happen.”
People, not projects, became collateral damage.
“What he needs to remember is that … he’s feeding 50, 60 people,” Hileman says at one point, an important notion that Hart stands on many shoulders in his business endeavors (which includes production credits on franchises like Sony’s “Jumanji” and an upcoming comedy at FX).
“When he takes a s—ter, everybody takes a s—ter,” she says, eloquently. “And that’s a big issue now.”
The soft cost to creative work is almost always human emotions, as we are frequently reminded, and Hart’s past homophobia comes at a price. At an emergency Sunday afternoon meeting at the HartBeat offices, nine days after Hart steps down as Oscar host, an awkward but revealing roundtable is held.
“As the people closest to me, I want you all to hear me and understand me. The tweets, I want you to know how stupid, idiotic those were, wholeheartedly,” Hart tells his staff. “Me not apologizing again isn’t being insensitive to the gay community at all. It’s me trying to take a stand.”
Hileman argues that “people looking for an immediate apology are the ones not familiar with who you are and what you stand for.” Hart’s personal manager, Dave Becky, jumps in, saying talk within the industry is inspiring doubt over his alignment with the comedian.
“I work here, and I know what a good guy you are,” Becky says. “Some people are going, ‘S—, are you at the right place? Am I going to lose everything?'”
No confrontation is more uncomfortable than the one Hart has with his creative executive Carli Haney, a gay woman. Haney explains the outpour of messages she’s received, asking if she’ll continue to work for Hart.
“We know you, I know you, we’ve had many conversations. It wasn’t about me, it was about the moment when it hit — my gay brother reaches out, and is furious. My therapist, gay, reached out and is furious. And that’s the person I talk to every week, so suddenly, now our work conversations I know will shift because that’s in there,” she explains.
Hart, whose eyes are cast down to the conference room floor, listened on as Haney says the venue owner for her upcoming wedding asked for an urgent meeting because they did not care to support an employee of his.
“I know my opinion, I know my friendship with you. It’s not just a matter of, oh, tomorrow I go out and I pick up and I’m yelling your name on the street. I think it’s going to take a second,” Haney says.
Hart dismisses the meeting still firmly on his own side. A disastrous appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime talk show follows, which unexpectedly saw the host herself take heat for seeming to pardon Hart with no real contrition.
Disclosures open other doors.
Tonally, the Hart series borrows from two genres of unscripted storytelling, both of which can read highly scripted or curated. The first is the glossy, deep behind-the-scenes events reserved for pop icons (Beyonce’s “Life Is but a Dream” and parts of “Homecoming,” Lady Gaga’s “Gaga: Five Foot Two”). The other is the low-brow deliciousness of Kardashian-style reality shows. Both genres bill themselves as confessional, which comes with consequences.
Here, Hart seems to reclaim a part of the Oscar narrative by laying it all out on the table. As Variety last reported in January, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is open to having him return as an Oscar host in the future, should he exhibit more meaningful gestures to the LGBTQ community.
On a different episode of the series, however, Hart and his wife, Eniko Parrish, give an unflinching account of Hart’s infidelity last year while she was in advanced stages of pregnancy. Gossip blogs and celebrity weeklies have feasted on the details, with Twitter erupting in disbelief at some of Hart’s excuses and even turned the blades on Parrish for remaining in the marriage. Beyond the mob of social media, reckless behavior from marquee talent makes movie executives nervous — especially when a star needs to sell a family-friendly film.
Crisis management isn’t time traveling.
“Don’t F**k This Up” buttons up with an admission of guilt, not an apology. Hart is shown playing in his manicured backyard with his wife and child, six months after the events described above.
“Looking back at it, what I thought it was, it wasn’t. And my approach to dealing with it, because of the assumption that I had, was just wrong,” Hart says in voiceover as footage shows him holding a glass of red wine in the California sunshine while also trying to scoop up his dog’s excrement with a plastic bag. It’s symbolism about as subtle as a chainsaw.
Hart says, over time, he engaged in conversations with many gay friends, notably Lee Daniels. The director and showrunner told Hart, “it’s not about the apology. It’s about you saying that you don’t condone violence.”
That’s when Hart said, “the lightbulbs really started going off. I missed an opportunity to say that I don’t condone any type of violence, in any way, shape, or form, to anyone, for being who they are.”
And, he concludes, “I f—ed up.”
“Kevin Hart: Don’t F**k This Up” is currently streaming on Netflix.